Lafayette Library Board of Control President Robert Judge listens to public comment at a Feb. 15, 2023, meeting. (Photo by Travis Gauthier for Louisiana Illuminator)
Two anti-censorship advocates are suing Lafayette Consolidated Government and the chair of the Lafayette Library Board of Control on allegations of First Amendment and open meetings law violations.
Lynette Meía and Melanie Brevis, co-founders of Lafayette Citizens Against Censorship and Louisiana Citizens Against Censorship, allege that Robert Judge, chair of the Library Board, unlawfully restricts protected speech by silencing individuals who express viewpoints he disagrees with and threatening the public with criminal prosecution.
In January, Brevis was escorted out of a Board of Control meeting by police at Judge’s order.
For several years, Lafayette has been the scene of high-profile clashes over library material. The board’s monthly meetings often devolve into chaos, which puts the board at risk of violating Louisiana’s open meetings law.
“It feels like over time, the board of control, specifically Robert Judge, have slowly been eating away at our First Amendment rights,” Mejía said in an interview. “The First Amendment right to free speech is the most fundamental right we have as American citizens. For him to feel like he can infringe upon that right for anybody… is just wrong.”
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Mejía and Brevis are being represented by the Tulane First Amendment Law Clinic, which also provides legal aid to the Illuminator.
“The right to challenge government officials is at the core of the First Amendment,” said Katie Schwartzmann, director of Tulane Law School’s First Amendment Clinic. “Government officials cannot silence constituents that they dislike or prohibit speech they disagree with. Political debate is central to our democratic government, and the rules in Lafayette run afoul of these basic principles.”
Judge frequently cuts off the microphone during public comment periods, arguing that individuals are being too combative or that their comments are not germane to the agenda items they are commenting on.
Mejía pointed out that just a few years ago before Judge was appointed to the library board, he protested drag queen story hours held at the library and frequently commented at board meetings. Mejía said that she wanted to protect the public’s ability to enjoy the same rights Judge exercised when he was on the other side of the podium.
The Tulane clinic sent a letter to Judge in October, expressing concern with the implementation of several policies the clinic believed to limit freedom of expression. In the fall, Judge began posting notices around the library on the state’s disturbing the peace law. He also began having armed police attend the meeting.
The plaintiffs are asking a federal court to step in to prevent the board from intimidating public speakers. They also want civil penalties paid for the board’s open meeting law violations.
The complaint was filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Louisiana.
Judge and representatives for the Lafayette Consolidated Government have not yet responded to requests for comment
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