The First Amendment of the Constitution protects Americans’ right to criticize their government and public officials. Rebecca Varney did exactly that. After receiving what she felt was a bogus ticket from her local police department, she began investigating her small Missouri town. What she found prompted a state audit, but also a wave of retaliation from officials who didn’t like the idea of an ordinary citizen holding them to account.
Thankfully, a Missouri circuit judge ruled earlier this month that the town of Edgar Springs’ efforts to stop Varney violated her constitutional rights and Missouri state law. The ruling ended a five-year saga for Varney and serves as a valuable reminder regarding the importance of protecting Americans’ freedom to call out abuses of power.
Varney’s ordeal began in 2018 after she received a questionable traffic ticket for failing to stop at the stop sign in front of her home, according to her attorney Dave Roland, co-founder and litigation director atthe Freedom Center of Missouri. Varney became suspicious that police in Edgar Springs were using their power to generate revenue for the locality. Varney chose to take matters into her own hands and went to city hall to investigate.
The 61-year-old pored through public records, which all citizens have a right to review, and found the number of traffic tickets being issued was skyrocketing. However, her investigation sparked retaliation from city officials. She was first barred from city hall in 2018 and prohibited from entering the building at all except during town council meetings. This was even though, as the judge found, all Varney did at city hall was politely submit records requests and quietly wait for them.
More than a year later Varney was given a trespass notice and permanently banned from city hall after she discovered city leaders holding official meetings in secret. Varney sued Edgar Springs after this trespass order.
“Incidents like these demonstrate why the protections embodied in the First and Fourteenth Amendments are so vital,” said Roland. “If citizens are to play their proper role in our self-governing society, they must be free to investigate how their government is operating and to publicly share any criticisms the citizen feels are warranted – and the government must not be permitted to punish those citizens simply for asking questions and challenging governmental actions or policies.”
Varney’s nightmare isn’t unique, Roland said. Roland is aware of other individuals across Missouri who were banned from public meetings or public property simply because they criticized government officials.
IJ has litigated at least a dozen cases nationwide where an individual faced retaliation after criticizing a public official. IJ has represented Wisconsin farmers who faced retaliatory code enforcement for criticizing the town board, a Detroit man who was prosecuted in retaliation for bringing a civil rights lawsuit, and a Texas citizen journalist who was arrested for documenting the police.
In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear one of IJ’s First Amendment retaliation cases earlier this year. In that case, officials in Castle Hills, Texas, conspired to punish Sylvia Gonzalez, a 76-year-old grandmother, for her opposition to the town’s city manager. Officials ginned up a bogus charge to arrest and jail Gonzalez in an effort to silence her, successfully forcing her out of her city council seat.
In speaking out against her town, Varney changed Edgar Springs. Varney’s activism prompted a state audit of the town, which found numerous deficiencies in its financial administration, as well as Sunshine Law violations. The town is now working to fix some of those problems. Complaints about questionable tickets have dropped as well.
Rebecca Varney is an important reminder of why the First Amendment must be protected. Making sure involved citizens have the right to call out questionable practices is critical to rooting out government abuses of power or corruption. Without free speech rights, vindictive government officials will continue to stifle dissenters. The first step to stopping government abuses of power is making sure citizens have the freedom to shine a light on it.
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The Institute for Justice is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, public interest law firm. Our mission is to end widespread abuses of government power and secure the constitutional rights that allow all Americans to pursue their dreams. IJ has represented individuals who faced retaliatory code enforcement for public comments they made, were arrested for posting jokes about their local police departments on social media, or had baseless lawsuits filed against them because of their criticisms of government officials. If you feel the government has abused your constitutional rights, tell us about your case. Visit https://ij.org/report-abuse/.
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