Sunday, April 2, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Atlanta City Council candidate brings free speech case to 11th Circuit

The former candidate for local office is challenging a policy prohibiting speakers from identifying themselves as candidates when commenting at City Council meetings.

ATLANTA (CN) — The 11th Circuit heard arguments Wednesday in an appeal seeking to allow candidates for local office to be able to identify themselves as such when speaking at Atlanta City Council meetings.

Matthew Cardinale, a lawyer and former candidate for a seat on City Council, has raised election-related grievances that he claims directly affected his candidacy, as well as his plans to run again in future elections.

"Depriving candidates of our ability to speak to those issues in a way that explains how they affect us specifically, at the very moment when the election cycle is ongoing such that there is heightened public pressure for action, deprives us all of one of the avenues to bring about elections reform that is driven in the real experiences of candidates," Cardinale wrote in a brief to the Atlanta-based federal appeals court.

Last year, U.S. District Judge Amy Totenberg, granted the city's motion for summary judgment, ruling that the "public comment period before the City Council and its committees constitutes a limited public forum" where "a government entity may impose restrictions on speech that are reasonable and viewpoint neutral.”

"Were the city to allow a speaker’s mention of his status as a candidate, it could be difficult for the presiding council member to determine when such a disclosure crossed the boundary into official ‘campaigning,’ which is undisputedly a permissible restriction," wrote Totenberg, a Barack Obama appointee.

Representing himself on appeal to the 11th Circuit, Cardinale disputes the district court's finding that the City Council meetings are limited public forums, arguing instead that they are designated public forums.

"We have a conflict in our precedent," U.S. Circuit Judge Frank Hull, a Bill Clinton appointee, said during Wednesday's hearing, referring to prior rulings that have given different definitions of what constitutes "limited" and "designated" public forums.

U.S. Circuit Judge Britt Grant noted the two restrictions that are applied to both limited and designated public forums under the 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Perry Education Association v. Perry Local Educators' Association.

“Reasonable time, place, and manner regulations are permissible, and a content-based prohibition must be narrowly drawn to effectuate a compelling state interest," the nation's high court wrote in Perry.

Grant, a Donald Trump appointee, said that Atlanta's policy of not wanting candidates to be giving their "platform speeches at every meeting" seems to be a reasonable regulation.

Representing the city, attorney Robert Ashe of Bondurant Mixson told the court that the regulation is in place to avoid political disruption during meetings.

Cardinale countered that the potential harm of how someone else reacts to his speech should not prohibit him from bringing forth relevant comments to petition the government.

U.S. Circuit Judge Robert Luck said that not being able to mention candidacy seems "overbroad."

"Presenting election issues is very different than saying, 'I'm running for candidate,'" said Luck, a Trump appointee.

The judge sympathized with Cardinale's frustrations with election issues, saying that he was once a candidate and was familiar with signage issues similar to those expressed in Cardinale's brief.

The 11th Circuit judges did not signal when they intend to issue their decision.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.