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Judge issues injunction blocking Oyster Bay from enforcing rules to quash 'bad' behavior at town board meetings

Blogger Kevin McKenna, of Syosset, sought and won

Blogger Kevin McKenna, of Syosset, sought and won a temporary restraining order to block Oyster Bay's new rules for decorum at town board meetings. Credit: Danielle Silverman

A federal judge has issued an injunction preventing Oyster Bay from enforcing recently adopted rules for behavior at public town board meetings.

U.S. District Judge Gary R. Brown in Central Islip granted a motion Monday for a temporary restraining order brought by plaintiff Kevin McKenna, a blogger from Syosset who regularly criticizes town officials at meetings and online."

The new rules, adopted at the town board’s Oct. 6 meeting, would have established a procedure to prosecute people for disorderly conduct if they were removed from a meeting at the direction of its presiding officer.

Behavior that could have resulted in ejection — and possibly prosecution — under the rules included failing to stop recording a meeting in a disruptive manner and refusing to put down signs or banners deemed to interfere with the meeting, speech deemed "offensive, insulting, threatening, insolent, slanderous or obscene" and becoming "boisterous."

"If you have a town board meeting, you’re going to have people that disagree with you and you’re going to have to deal with it," McKenna’s attorney, Farmingdale-based Jonathan Clarke, said in an interview.

He added that the rules went "far beyond what’s constitutional" and would have "set a precedent for other town boards to put in criminal language" in their own meeting rules.

Brown’s order did not include a written decision. He scheduled a telephone conference between the parties on Dec. 2. Clarke said Brown told the town’s attorneys to either rewrite the law ahead of the upcoming conference or face a full hearing on its constitutionality.

"The judge provided two weeks for the town to slightly alter verbiage while maintaining the same intent of the law, which is to protect the freedom of speech for all attendees while ensuring a safe environment free of profanity, sexual gestures and unruly behavior," town spokesman Brian Nevin wrote in an email. "The town will certainly prevail against this frivolous lawsuit which wastes taxpayer money in a poor attempt to gain media attention while hampering good government."

The injunction drew praise from advocates for free speech.

The Press Club of Long Island said in a statement that it was pleased that the court was blocking new rules and called on the town board to rescind them as unnecessary because rules to eject a disruptive person from a meeting already exist.

"Journalists covering and recording public meetings should never have to choose between doing their jobs effectively and risking 15 days in jail," the statement said. "Not only do these new meeting rules violate the Freedom of the Press, they threaten the public’s right to know."

Susan Gottehrer, Nassau County chapter director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement that the town’s rules would have chilled protected speech.

"The Constitution does not allow the council to criminalize speech on an arbitrary assessment of whether something is insulting or offensive," Gottehrer said. "Doing so would deter the kind of speech and dissent that elected officials should be prepared to hear, and that the First Amendment is designed to protect."

Last month, Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas expressed doubts about whether violations of the town’s new rules would meet the legal bar to prosecute.

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