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City Council Hit With Federal Lawsuit Over Its Rules On Citizen Speeches

By Mike Dunn

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- A local activist has filed a federal lawsuit against Philadelphia City Council claiming that Council violates the First Amendment by limiting the topics of speeches made during its weekly meetings.

Activist Patrick Duff has, for the past few weeks, made speeches in City Council that push Council's limits on public speaking. Specifically, you're only supposed to speak about bills that are up for a vote, and Duff intentionally went beyond that. On Thursday, Duff upped the ante by announcing in his speech that he was suing Council over the rules.

"I just want to present you with this," he said. "This is a lawsuit against the city that I had to file because you don't allow open public comment."

Duff's suit, filed in federal court, alleges that Council's public speaking rules violate citizens' rights.

"I'm sure everybody would like to speak openly in the city," Duff said. "What this does is allow people to have open public comment, as the (state) Sunshine Act and the First Amendment allow us to do."

With a different view is Darryl Zaslow, the attorney who four years won a State Supreme Court decision that forced Council to have any public speeches. He says the legality of Council's current rules is unclear -- and there are arguments to be made on both sides.

"It is by no means a clear cut win on either side," Zaslow said. "The right to speak is very clear on matters of concern which are coming before the council or are before the council. The courts have interpreted that sometimes very narrowly, which does give City Council the right to make the claim that they do have the right to limit it."

However, Zaslow believes that most suburban municipalities do allow unrestricted public comment.

"In every surrounding township and county," he said, "they do take their citizens to give testimony on any issues which may be of concern."

A City Council official says Duff's lawsuit has been referred to the city Law Department. In an earlier statement on the question, a council spokesperson said the Law Department believes Council's public comment rules are in compliance with the Sunshine Act and the First Amendment. Prior to Zaslow's legal battle, which ended in 2010 with a state Supreme Court decision, Council allowed public comment only at committee hearings, not at its full weekly meetings.

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