Two federal lawsuits filed on behalf of Anthony Fire District firefighters against Chief Stanley J. Mruk have been dismissed. On Thursday of last week, U.S. District Judge Mary M. Lisi rejected a bid by two firefighters to hold the chief in contempt of an earlier consent order requiring that Mruk physically expunge a gag rule from the district’s bylaws.
And on Wednesday, U.S. District Judge William Smith dismissed a suit contending that Mruk and the district’s auditor, Conrad R. Burns, violated four firefighters’ constitutional rights by barring them from speaking at, and videotaping, the district’s 2003 annual meeting and by ejecting one of them from the meeting.
Both actions were brought on firefighters’ behalf by the Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“We don’t plan to appeal” either ruling, Steven Brown, the affiliate’s executive director, said yesterday.
Concerning the contempt-of-court suit, Brown noted that the ACLU had won a substantive victory in that the court-approved consent order barred the district from imposing the gag rule and required the district to pay the ACLU legal fees for representing Firefighters Robert G. Carlow and Lonnie St. Jean.
Concerning the district meeting case, Brown said he was disappointed and that Judge Smith’s finding highlighted “a dangerous principle of immunity some public officials have in their legislative capacity.”
Efforts to reach Mruk and Conrad for comment yesterday were unsuccessful.
The contempt-of-court action stemmed from a court battle that began in 2002 after Carlo, the president of the Anthony firefighters union, and St. Jean, its vice president, complained in addresses to parent-teacher associations that the district was not providing adequate training.
Mruk ordered the two to keep quiet or risk dismissal. The ensuing suit filed by the ACLU produced, in March 2004, the consent judgment under which the threat was rescinded and the pertinent section of the bylaws was found unconstitutional.
In their bid for a contempt finding, Carlow and St. Jean contended that the gag rule remained in the bylaws. They pointed to a copy of the bylaws that was introduced by the district in a labor- arbitration case last summer.
Judge Lisi, in rejecting their suit, said the consent order did not clearly state who was to amend the bylaws or stipulate that the amended bylaws be posted. The use of an unamended copy in the arbitration proceeding, she said, did not by itself violate the consent order.
In the other suit, stemming from the 2003 annual meeting, Judge Smith ruled against Firefighters Carlo, David Gorman and James and William Perry.
Chief Mruk, the judge said, “played no role” in the conduct of the meeting, and auditor Conrad, who was the meeting moderator, was within his rights to maintain order in “a limited public forum.”
Conrad has said he barred the video cameras, in part, because he feared their use would intimidate voters. The judge found no evidence that Conrad had singled out the firefighters and noted that a majority of the voters at the meeting rejected a motion to allow the cameras.
Smith also ruled that the four firefighters did not have a given right to speak because they are not Coventry residents. He said Conrad had the right to eject Gorman because the firefighter was wandering between resident and nonresident seating sections. Conrad said he asked Gorman three times to return to his seat and finally told a police officer to eject him.
The ACLU’s Brown said yesterday that only fire districts are immune from a provision of the Open Meetings Law that allows the use of video cameras at public meetings. “No other public body can get away with that,” he said of Conrad’s ban.
He said the ACLU next year would seek an amendment eliminating the exception.