ELIZABETH - With help from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey's new Open Governance Project, a citizen activist celebrated a free speech victory that culminated Thursday, August 20, in a public apology from the Union County Freeholders for silencing him at their June meeting.
"People in the public have a voice and shouldn't be silenced," said Bruce Paterson. "Questioning the government is a fundamental right, and I'm grateful that right was defended. The freeholders - and all public officials - need to respect the constitutional rights of their constituents."
During the public comment period of the Freeholders' June meeting, citizen activist Bruce Paterson raised concerns over potential nepotism in the county's hiring practices. Union County Freeholder Vice-Chairman Daniel P. Sullivan said he would not tolerate discussion about family members and cut off Paterson's remarks.
The ACLU-NJ's Open Governance Project sent a letter explaining that free speech principles protect the public's right to speak at meetings about the hiring practices. The freeholders relented to the ACLU-NJ's demand to end their practice of cutting off such comments and will read its formal apology at the Freeholders' August meeting in Elizabeth.
"Public bodies don't have the right to shut down free speech when they disagree with what someone says," said ACLU-NJ Open Governance Attorney Bobby Conner, who advocated on Paterson's behalf. "The watchword in our state this summer has been accountability, yet it's only meaningful when the rights of citizens to question their government are respected."
Paterson's victory is only the latest success of the Open Governance Project, formed this past spring to fight for greater access to New Jersey government. The project is unique in its scope as the only legal outfit in the state with the resources to litigate open-government cases pro bono on a full-time basis.
"The arrests of officials this summer remind us of what can happen when the people's work is done in back rooms. Our project will help open the doors for the public," Conner said. "Conducting government in the sunshine is essential to protecting democracy and holding our officials accountable."