In Zanesville v. Jones, 2017-Ohio-1112, an Ohio appellate court found that strict compliance with the formalities of the Ohio Open Meetings Act are not necessary to support a conviction for disrupting a lawful meeting.
The case involved the conviction of a citizen who “attended the regularly scheduled meeting of the Zanesville City Council” and filed a petition to speak at the meeting. Zanesville at ¶3. “When called upon to speak, [the citizen] referred to members of council as ‘tyrants’ and ‘traitors,’ and repeatedly used an offensive racial slur.” Zanesville at ¶4. When the citizen’s speaking time expired, and “despite being repeatedly asked to stop speaking and informed that he was out of order, [he] continued to speak. Council was forced to suspend the meeting while waiting for a police officer to remove [the citizen] from the meeting. His actions disrupted the meeting and delayed other community members from having the opportunity to timely speak before the Council.” Zanesville at ¶ 4.
The citizen was subsequently convicted under a local ordinance that “is identical to R.C. 2917.12(A)(1),” which prohibits the disruption of a lawful meeting. Zanesville at ¶ 5. The citizen appealed the conviction, arguing that the prosecutor failed to prove that the city council meeting was, in fact, lawful – i.e., “that the formalities of the open meeting act were complied with [such that] advance public notice of the time and place of the meeting was given.” Zanesville at ¶ 11.
While the citizen’s argument was, indeed clever, the Ohio appellate court disagreed, finding that “whether or not the formalities of the Sunshine Laws are strictly complied with is not the determining factor as to whether or not there was a lawful meeting for purposes of the prohibition against disrupting a lawful meeting.” Zanesville at ¶ 11. Rather, for purposes of the prohibition against disrupting a lawful meeting, “the meeting need only be a prearranged discussion of public business by council, as opposed to a casual gathering.” Zanesville at ¶ 11.
This case should serve as a helpful reminder to public officials that they do, in fact, have the ability to contact the authorities to remove an individual who is preventing a public meeting when that individual is either (1) obstructing or interfering with a lawful meeting or (2) making an “utterance, gesture, or display which outrages the sensibilities of the group.” R.C. 2917.12.
To read this case, please click here.
Authors: Matthew John Markling and Patrick Vrobel
Note: This blog entry does not constitute – nor does it contain – legal advice. Legal jurisprudence is like the always changing Midwestern weather. As a result, this single blog entry cannot substitute for consultation with a McGown & Markling attorney. If legal advice is needed with respect to a specific factual situation, please feel free to contact a McGown & Markling attorney.