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Published: Tuesday, 11/11/2003

Council takes stand on free speech

Toledo City Councilman Peter Gerken speaks during a news conference at Government Center while demonstrators display a banner and signs protesting the USA Patriot Act. Toledo City Councilman Peter Gerken speaks during a news conference at Government Center while demonstrators display a banner and signs protesting the USA Patriot Act.
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Toledo Councilmen Peter Gerken and Frank Szollosi held a news conference yesterday in Government Center on freedom of speech and the USA Patriot Act, and this time they weren t shown the door by building security and state troopers.

Accompanied by five council colleagues - all fellow Democrats - and more than a dozen anti-Patriot Act demonstrators, the two councilmen said the right to speak freely in a public place is a cornerstone of democracy.

“The actions of a few denied the citizens their right to speak,” said Mr. Gerken, alluding to the bum s rush he and Mr. Szollosi received Thursday when they convened a news conference to offer their opinions about a proposed council resolution condemning the USA Patriot Act.

“No one is making a move to remove us today,” Mr. Gerken said. “Is it because there are more cameras here? More people here?”

“My heart is warmed by the outpouring of support today for something we all should cherish: the right to open your mouth,” Mr. Szollosi said.

Both said they plan to seek “additional remedies” from the Ohio Building Authority, which owns and manages Government Center.

Afterward, Mr. Gerken said a lawyer has been consulted about filing a civil rights suit against the building authority. Such a lawsuit s goal would be to obtain an injunction forbidding similar action against speakers, he said, and to assess some sort of symbolic damages, such as requiring the authority to post a copy of the Bill of Rights in a prominent place in the building.

Paul Goggin, the building authority s executive director, yesterday characterized the incident as a case of building security personnel being “caught off-guard” because the news conference was to be held outdoors “but moved inside at the last minute.”

Building authority policy has been for the lobby area to be kept clear of large gatherings to maintain public safety - thousands of employees and visitors need to be able to get in and out of the building each day, he said.

“It s regrettable that the whole thing happened in the first place,” Mr. Goggin said. “I think had there been better planning, we could have been more accommodating.”

At the direction of Government Center security officers, Ohio Highway Patrol troopers escorted Mr. Gerken and Mr. Szollosi out of the building Thursday after members of a group called Citizens for Individual Rights and Freedoms unfurled a banner criticizing the USA Patriot Act as “unpatriotic.” Group members also were ordered to leave.

Building managers said later that the order was triggered by the banner unfurling.

Though the news conference addressed only freedom-of-speech issues, demonstrators gathered around the seven councilmen and displayed the banner and anti-Patriot Act signs. The law, enacted after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, broadens federal investigative and surveillance powers. Critics say it infringes on personal privacy.

Council President Louis Escobar and Councilmen Karyn McConnell, Michael Ashford Ellen Grachek, Bob McCloskey, all attended, with Mr. Escobar presiding and reading a supportive statement from Councilman Betty Shultz.

George Sarantou and Rob Ludeman, who along with Mrs. Shultz are council s only Republicans, said they had business commitments that conflicted with the news conference. Mr. Sarantou also said he wanted to hear the building authority s response to a letter the city law department sent Friday inquiring about the incident and agency policy.

Councilman Wilma Brown said she skipped the conference for health reasons, and Wade Kapszukiewicz said he had a conflicting doctor s appointment.



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