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Oyster Bay, blogger settle lawsuit over public meeting rules

Syosset resident Kevin McKenna addresses the Oyster Bay

Syosset resident Kevin McKenna addresses the Oyster Bay Town Board in 2016. McKenna sued the town over its meeting rules. Credit: Jeffrey Basinger

Oyster Bay and a Syosset blogger have reached a settlement in a federal lawsuit over public meeting rules adopted in October that raised concerns over limits on free speech and freedom of the press.

U.S. District Judge Gary Brown in the U.S. Eastern District Court in Central Islip dismissed the case on Monday after lawyers for blogger Kevin McKenna and the town informed the court they had reached a settlement in principle. Brown gave McKenna leave to reinstate the case by Feb. 12 if the settlement is not consummated. Lawyers for the town said in a court filing that the parties would require 30 days following a Jan. 12 town board meeting to finalize the settlement.

The rules of decorum the Oyster Bay Town Board adopted in October created a procedure for the presiding officer of a meeting to eject a member of the public for violating rules and said being ejected could lead to prosecution for disorderly conduct.

Language about disorderly conduct prosecutions was removed in a draft of revised rules to be considered by the town board under the settlement. Instead, the new rules state that the presiding officer of a meeting can seek assistance from law enforcement if someone refuses to leave.

The revised rules would also remove prohibitions against political speech by speakers at meetings and language deemed offensive, insolent or slanderous. Prohibited speech would instead be limited to defamation, intimidation, personal insults or making threats of violence or threats against public order and security, according to the draft. Obscene language could not be included on posters or banners brought into meetings.

"This is an important case because governments really try to push the boundaries of what counts as constitutional and what doesn’t," McKenna’s attorney Jonathan Clarke of Farmingdale said. "This set a firm line that they’re not going to allow any rules of decorum that touch on protected First Amendment rights such as speech."

Town spokesman Brian Nevin said in an email that the "attorneys for parties agree on the importance of rules of decorum and this settlement, if ratified by the Town Board, safeguards the town’s intent to protect the freedom of speech for all attendees while ensuring a safe environment free of profanity, sexual gestures and unruly behavior."

Clarke said the settlement includes a $5,000 payment to McKenna and $15,000 for his legal fees. Nevin, however, said in an email that the settlement includes paying McKenna’s legal fees but not McKenna.

The rules adopted in October prompted skepticism from Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas who said at the time the rules appeared to provide for charging members of the public under vague and subjective rules that didn’t meet the standards for prosecution of disorderly conduct.

The Press Club of Long Island had also urged the board to rescind the rules, which included a procedure to charge camera operators with disorderly conduct. The new rules state that assistance from law enforcement can be sought if a camera operator refuses to leave.

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