By Jim Hagerty
Before he got down to city business Monday, May 8, Mayor Tom McNamara issued a 90-day suspension from public comments to a local man for statements he made to aldermen last month.
At the April 24 meeting of the Rockford City Council, Rev. Derrick Shelby accused five specific men of raping children and killing black people. He also accused school officials of targeting black students for undue disciplinary actions and that black defendants are sentenced to unusually long prison terms.
Shelby’s comments were made under ex-Mayor Larry Morrissey’s administration. The meeting was recorded by video but the footage was lost.
When McNamara took office, he asked Interim Legal Director Kerry Partridge to review audio, and Partridge determined Shelby directly accused the men of rape and murder.
Metaphoric comments made in public are generally protected under the First Amendment. False unverified statements about individuals that could damage their reputation, on the other hand, may be grounds for legal action.
Comments written, gestured, printed or spoken are considered published content. There validity, whether comments are true, comes into questions when someone files a defamation lawsuit.
In addition to proving statements are false, a plaintiff must show they are injurious to his or her reputation; uttering privileged information in public can be grounds for a defamation case.
The public does have a right to criticize city officials, leaving them less protected under defamation laws than laypersons. Officials and public figures can still bring successful lawsuits if they prove defendant’s act with malice.
The suspension is not the first time a public speaker was asked to keep away from City Hall. Last year, late artist Roland Poska was suspended for poking fellow regular Toby Haldeman with a golf club while Haldeman was addressing aldermen using a doll dressed as Hillary Clinton. Haldeman was warned for violating the city’s policy that prohibits props during public comment.
A frequent speaker during public comment, Shelby recently criticized Rockford on his Facebook page, calling it “wicked and evil” and asking Jesus to bring destruction on the city.
“All JESUS people, pray that the Lord Jesus will pull the cover off Rockford and let the nation and the world know how wicked and racist and evil this city truly is!” he posted May 2. “Rockford I’ll (sic) is a disgrace to America! The Lord Jesus Christ should send a tornado through here and level the east side of the city!! The most racist city in AMERICA!!!!”
Shelby had similar words for McNamara in a written response to the suspension, telling the mayor male black children are victims of vicious, evil racism.