Florida Man Calls Politicians Corrupt, Gets Thrown in Jail

It's not that uncommon to hear someone complaining that politicians are corrupt.  But you wouldn't expect to be thrown in jail for it.

That's exactly what happened to Fane Lozman at a City Council meeting in Florida.

A week ago, that arrest got to the U.S. Supreme Court, and it had implications not just for Lozman but for the limits of First Amendment protections of freedom of speech, and possibly even religious liberty by extension.

Here's what happened to Lozman

Back in 2006, Lozman was not exactly a welcome sight for the Riviera Beach City Council. He had managed to scuttle its plans to convert the local public marina into a private one.

A transcript of a closed-door meeting in June of that year shows council members discussing tactics for dealing with Lozman, including the possibility of hiring a private investigator to turn the tables on the city's critic.  

"I think it would help to intimidate him," Council Chairperson Elizabeth Wade said, adding, "I think they should be questioned by some of our people ... so they can feel the same kind of unwarranted heat."

On Nov. 15, 2006, the dispute between Lozman and the City Council boiled over. During the public comment portion of an open meeting, Lozman decided to speak up.

"They were not in a very good mood," he recalls. "They realized they had to abandon their entire redevelopment plan. ... They were throwing in the towel that night, and that's when I got up to make my public comment, and the chairperson was just livid looking at me."

Lozman started out, "You're probably aware that the U.S. attorney's office has arrested the second corrupt local politician.  This time it was former Palm Beach County Commissioner Tony Masilotti."

Chairperson Wade immediately interrupted him: "Fane Lozman, you have the right to say what you want to say publicly, but you will not stand up and go through that."

Lozman persisted, insisting that he had the right to speak.  An irritable Mrs. Wade summoned the police officer on duty to the lectern and told Lozman to leave or be arrested.

When Lozman refused to leave, Wade told the officer to "carry him out."

The officer handcuffed Lozman and took him to a holding cell at the local police department, charging him with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.

The charges were subsequently dropped, but Lozman continued to fume.  He sued the city, alleging a number of retaliatory acts, including his arrest at the council meeting.   

"I did maintain order," he said. "Disorderly conduct relative to a public meeting is if you go beyond your three minutes, if you use profanity, if you're screaming or yelling.  I was doing none of those."

The case went all the way to the Supreme Court.

Lozman's lawyers, in their briefs, state that the defendant here isn't the individual police officer; it's the city.  The arrest did not occur in the field, but occurred while Lozman was "calmly speaking during the public comment portion of a city council meeting" and that what he said "provided no basis for the arrest."

Supreme Court Decision

WASHINGTON -- A South Florida man just won a First Amendment victory at the Supreme Court in a case that could protect disgruntled citizens from arrest for voicing their displeasure at elected officials during public meetings.

The nation's highest court ruled in favor of Fane Lozman thirteen days ago in a 8-1 decision, the culmination of more than a decade of work for Lozman after he was dragged out of a Riviera Beach city council meeting and arrested after speaking about the allegedly corrupt dealings of a Palm Beach County commissioner.

The court's decision on Monday affects citizens who show up to public meetings to vent and question the actions of elected officials.  If one official orders the arrest of someone speaking at a public meeting and the rest of the elected body doesn't object, the person arrested can now have a cause of action against the municipality if he or she can prove animosity.

That means it's harder for angry elected officials to use their power to arrest people they simply don't like.  This is a victory for the First Amendment rights of citizens.  Whether it has implications for Religious Liberty, we will leave up to the pundits.  It certainly affects general liberty.