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An Ohio official was arrested for speaking at her own meeting. Her rights were violated, judge says

An Ohio elected official's constitutional rights were violated when her colleagues on a county board of commissioners had her arrested for criticizing the sheriff during a public meeting, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

Niki Frenchko, the lone Republican on the three-member Trumbull County Board of Commissioners, was placed in handcuffs by sheriff's deputies at the commissioners’ meeting on July 7, 2022, and charged under an Ohio law that makes it a misdemeanor to “prevent or disrupt a lawful meeting.” The law prohibits obstructive conduct or speech that “outrages the sensibilities of the group.” The charge was later dropped,

Frenchko — who livestreamed her arrest on Facebook — subsequently filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, saying she was ordered to leave the meeting and placed under arrest for exercising her First Amendment right to free speech, and that the sheriff's department lacked probable cause to charge her.

U.S. District Judge J. Philip Calabrese agreed.

“Here in America, we do not arrest our political opponents,” the judge wrote. “This case tests that longstanding norm as well as our Constitution’s robust protections for free speech that allow us to criticize our representatives and public officials.”

Calabrese ruled that the sheriff, two deputies, and both county commissioners named in the suit — one of whom has since left the board — are personally liable for damages. A hearing on damages will be scheduled later.

The judge expressed misgivings about the state law itself but declined to strike it down, as Frenchko had sought.

“If they’re going to do this to me in broad daylight at a public meeting, I had a duty to take them to task so they can’t do it to someone else,” Frenchko, who is running for reelection this year, told The Associated Press. “It’s so off the mark of what America should be.”

Messages were left for Sheriff Paul Monroe and current Commissioner Mauro Cantalamessa, both of whom were named as defendants. An email was sent to their lawyer seeking comment. An appeal was expected.

The Ohio case echoes other recent instances in which elected officials have been punished over speech.

In Montana, Republicans silenced transgender lawmaker Zooey Zephry last year after she refused to apologize for telling colleagues who supported a ban on gender-affirming care that they would have blood on their hands. In Tennessee, Republicans expelled Reps. Justin Jones and Justin Pearson, two young Black Democratic lawmakers who have since been reappointed and reelected, for breaking procedural rules during a gun control protest on the House floor.

Frenchko took office in 2021 as the first GOP commissioner of Trumbull County in nearly three decades, quickly developing a reputation as a “dissenting and often unwelcome voice” on the board, the judge noted. Commissioners' meetings became notoriously contentious, with disagreements over policy frequently veering into personal invective.

It was against that backdrop that Frenchko, Cantalamessa and since-retired Commissioner Frank Fuda began bickering over Frenchko's criticism of Sheriff Monroe after an inmate death at the Trumbull County Jail.

At one point, Cantalamessa told Frenchko: “You are talking about the chief law enforcement officer in Trumbull County; it’s unacceptable," according to a transcript cited by the judge. Fuda then called for a sergeant in the back of the room, telling Frenchko, “You got a choice, you wanna apologize to the Sheriff, fine; if you don’t, we’re going to move on."

Frenchko plowed on. That's when a sergeant went up to the dais, pulled Frenchko's chair back and ordered her to stand up and leave the meeting. She was put in handcuffs outside of the meeting room.

Calabrese, in Tuesday's ruling, said the evidence showed that Frencko's “speech caused her arrest.”

The defendants are not entitled to immunity from damages, he wrote, because the law has “long recognized that any reasonable official would know that the First Amendment does not countenance the arrest of a person for engaging in protected speech.”

One of Frenchko's attorneys, David John Betras, a former Democratic Party chairman of a neighboring county in northeastern Ohio, said he represented the Republican official in court because the case has “nothing to do with politics.”

“We can't arrest each other because you disagree with them politically. Once you start down that slope, it's bad news for all of us,” Betras said. “Who arrests someone for disturbing their own meeting?”

The criminal charge against Frenchko was dropped several weeks after her arrest.