LONGVIEW — A Longview resident — who has been removed from two Longview City Council meetings for verbal interruptions — has sued the city, saying the city has violated his right to free speech.
Jason Still filed the lawsuit last week in the federal Western District of Washington court. A frequent and outspoken presence at City Council meetings over the last two years, Still alleges the city “censored and intimidated” him when he was kicked out of City Hall for speaking during times city officials says public speaking is not allowed.
The lawsuit, which asks for $250,000 in damages, alleges the city infringed on Still’s First Amendment rights by limiting his speech during a public meeting. The suit also claims Still’s treatment by the Longview police officers violated his 14th Amendment rights to due process.
“Plaintiff seeks a declaration and/or decree stating that (the city’s) policies are illegal and that its agencies should refrain from threats and other action intended to restrict members of the public from exercising First Amendment rights at City Council or other public meetings,” the lawsuit states.
Longview City Manager Kris Swanson said the city has received the lawsuit and has no further comment.
During the council meeting on April 14, 2022, footage shows Still interrupted Mayor MaryAlice Wallis to ask about follow-up to constituent comments, the time when the city manager may address issues raised at previous meetings.
The agenda item typically follows constituency comments, in which residents may address the council on any subject they like. Still did speak during that portion of the agenda that night.
After being told there was no planned follow-up that night, Still continued to insist he be allowed to speak from the audience. Wallis told Still to stop interrupting before directing Longview police Chief Robert Huhta to talk to Still.
Huhta talked to Still inside and outside the council chambers before Still eventually left the building. Their conversations were not recorded as part of the public meeting.
Still was ejected again from a council meeting on June 22, 2023. During the public hearing on the creation of a city metropolitan parks district, Councilwoman Hillary Strobel asked Still to not hold a side conversation in the audience during the council discussion.
After a contentious back-and-forth between Still, Strobel and Wallis, Still was approached by Longview Police Department Capt. Branden McNew, and the two left the room. The lawsuit claims McNew grabbed Still’s arm to remove him from the building, but the exchange was not captured on the meeting recording.
Still’s complaint alleges that in both instances, Longview officers told Still he could be charged with disorderly conduct if he did not leave the building. Neither interaction led to Still being arrested or charged.
In a warning letter sent to the city by Still’s attorney prior to filing the lawsuit, Still also asked for a public apology and the reinstatement of the city manager follow-up as an agenda item, which the city discontinued in May 2022.
Washington state law requires public bodies like a city council to accept public comment at their meetings but allows for restrictions to maintain order.
The state code about interruptions to meetings allows governments to stop comments “when not recognized by the governing body to speak.” The law requiring public comment also carves out the ability for jurisdictions to place limitations on the timing and manner of public speech, among other limits.
“Nothing in this section diminishes the authority of governing bodies to deal with interruptions … or requires a governing body to accept public comment that renders orderly conduct of the meeting unfeasible,” the state’s public comment law states.