Alpine Community Planning Group Censors Outspoken Member

UPDATE: In response to the ACLU letter, San Diego County Counsel Tom Montgomery wrote: “The Alpine community Planning Group will not remove Mr. Russo, or take any other action against him, based upon the May 26, 2011 finding of an unexcused absence for the April 2011 meeting.”

The full story by the San Diego Union Tribune can be found here.

San Diego — The Alpine Community Planning Group (ACPG) cannot sanction one of its members for exercising his constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech, according to a letter sent today from the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties. The letter demands that the ACPG sanction be reversed and no further retaliatory action taken against the member.

Louis Russo is a member of the ACPG, a community planning group in Alpine that advises County officials, including the Board of Supervisors, in the preparation, amendment and implementation of community and sub-regional plans. Russo became frustrated with the ACPG’s efficiency and responsiveness to the local community, and wrote an article for the Alpine Community Network criticizing several of its decisions and suggesting it may need to be disbanded.

In retaliation for Russo’s article, the group voted on May 26, 2011 to find Russo absent and unexcused for its April meeting, even though Russo was in fact physically present at the meeting. Because Russo has two previous (excused) absences, the sanction would allow the group to remove him from his position as a member of the group. Russo believes the group will attempt to remove him if the sanction is approved by the County Board of Supervisors. The letter makes clear that the sanction is unconstitutional, as is any further retaliation against Russo in the form of censure or removal.

“The ACPG cannot sanction or remove Mr. Russo in an effort to silence him for exercising his constitutionally protected right to free speech,” said Sarah Abshear, staff attorney of the San Diego ACLU. “People don’t lose their free speech rights when they are elected or appointed to an advisory group. If anything, members of an advisory group are more informed about the group than the general public, and it is important to our system of government that citizens be able to hear their criticism.”