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COURT: OFFICIAL’S FREE SPEECH RIGHTS VIOLATED FOR CRITICIZING SHERIFF

An Ohio county commissioner found herself at the center of a pivotal First Amendment case when she was arrested for criticizing the local sheriff at a public meeting. U.S. District Judge J. Philip Calabrese ruled that Niki Frenchko’s constitutional rights were violated by the arrest during a Trumbull County Board of Commissioners meeting.

 

Frenchko was arrested on July 7, 2022 and charged with disrupting a lawful meeting. Her arrest sparked a federal civil rights lawsuit alleging a violation of her First Amendment rights. In his ruling, Judge Calabrese found the sheriff, two deputies, and two other county commissioners personally liable for damages, pending a future hearing.

 

Frenchko’s arrest followed a series of contentious commissioner meetings following her election in 2021. As the lone Republican and the first GOP commissioner in Trumbull County in nearly three decades, Frenchko became known for her dissenting views, often putting her at odds with her colleagues. The tension reached a crescendo over her remarks about an inmate’s death at the Trumbull County Jail, leading to the confrontation that resulted in her arrest.

 

The case echoes other recent situations where elected officials have been penalized for their speech, raising questions about the extent to which free speech is protected within the political sphere. In Tennessee, Republicans expelled two legislators who protested gun violence on the House floor. Montana Republicans barred Democrat Zooey Zephyr after she criticized legislators who supported a ban on gender-affirming medical care.

 

The judge's decision underscores a vital tenet of American democracy: political opponents cannot be arrested for their speech.

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