Just days after Riverhead Town’s controversial vote to ban booing at Town Board meetings became national news, a local attorney has filed a notice of claim seeking to overturn that ban on the grounds that it is a violation of free speech and expression.
Ron Hariri of Aquebogue, an outspoken critic of town government who has a law practice in Manhattan, wasted no time in filing the notice of claim Monday.
The booing ban was part of an otherwise unexciting set of new rules and procedures for Town Board meetings adopted last Tuesday, March 5. A section of the new rules reads that “no member of the public shall engage in any demonstration, booing, hand clapping or otherwise disrupt the formality of a Town Board meeting.”
Hand clapping was later deemed allowed.
Since the adoption of the new rules, that one sentence in the four page rules and procedures has been reported and commented on nationwide.
Mr. Hariri’s notice of claim, which reserves the right to file a lawsuit, states that he seeks to overturn the regulations, “which outlaw a member of the public from booing at Town Board meetings, in violation of the rights of free speech and freedom of expression guaranteed under the federal and state constitutions.”
The notice of claim then lists a number of recent Town Board actions that Mr. Hariri says he is now prohibited from booing at Town Board meetings, including “creation of Long Island’s largest junk yard at the EPCAL property in Calverton, with potential damage to the environment; the town’s failure to adopt necessary measures to combat violence and crime, such as drive-by shootings in downtown Riverhead; the town’s failure to shut down illegal immigrant rooming houses and drug dens operated in violation of law,” and other examples.
Mr. Hariri’s notice of claim asks that the rules and procedures be overturned, and he seeks $1 million in punitive damages from the town, “to deter future misconduct.”
The lawsuit names the five Town Board members who voted for the new rules, but not Councilman Jim Wooten, who opposed them.
Mr. Wooten said in an interview that he believed the rules sought to control the actions of the board, and that he didn’t think they were necessary.
Mr. Hariri targeted his criticism at Supervisor Sean Walter, saying “given the history of failure by the Walter administration, it’s no surprise he seeks to muzzle free speech by concerned citizens.”
“That’s just comical,” Mr. Walter told a reporter in response to news of the claim notice. “What did Mark Twain say? It’s better to be thought a fool and remain silent than to open your mouth and remove all doubt. Booing is not a form of free speech, booing is an intimidation tactic that intimidates others from speaking.
“You can’t boo in Congress or the state Legislature, you shouldn’t be allowed to boo at a Town Board meeting. This is not an Islander-Ranger game.”
The board previously had no rules for governing its meetings, and the rules adopted were mostly taken from rules and procedures in other towns, and from Robert’s Rules of Order, Mr. Walter has said. Three members of the board could vote to suspend the rules at any time.
In an interview with the News-Review, Robert Freeman, the longtime executive director of the state Committee on Open Meetings, sided with the town on its decision.
“New York State Town Law says the board has the ability to adopt rules to govern its own proceedings,” he said Friday. “The rules have to be reasonable, but certainly they have the ability to establish rules that are designed to guarantee common courtesy and the avoidance of disruption.”
He added that towns are not even required by law to allow the public to speak at board meetings.
Mr. Hariri has sought to run for town office in the past — including in 2011 when he sought the Democratic nod to run for supervisor — but said he’s made no decision on running this year.
He recently recovered from a bought with cancer, he said.
“I just won my battle against cancer, and I think there may a few fights left in me,” he said Monday.