Eveylyn Richter

Defending First Amendment Rights in Tredyffrin Township

It has been 8+  weeks, since Tredyffrin Township Supervisor John DiBuonaventuro wrote and posted his September 5, 2012 letter to the citizens on the township website. (click here to read the letter). Over the last 2 months, I continue to receive phone calls, emails and have had many discussions with residents that are troubled and concerned about DiBuonaventuro’s letter and use of government letterhead, government website and government resources for his personal attack of traditional news sources as well a private citizen, who dare to question our government. Subsequent to September 5th, we have learned that DiBuonaventuro’s personal letter and use of government resources, was apparently sanctioned and approved by former township manager Mimi Gleason, township solicitor Vince Donahue and the other six members of the Tredyffrin Township’s Board of Supervisors.

At the September 17, 2012 Board of Supervisors meeting, I read a personal statement (click here for Community Matters post and links to BOS meeting and statement) which addressed DiBuonaventuro’s letter and subsequent email and joint phone call from the township manager and police chief on this topic.

When the framers of our Constitution insisted on Freedom of Speech rights, one of their aims was so that all Americans – no matter their social class or position in our society – could vigorously examine and criticize our government. These rights have throughout our history nurtured our democracy and made us a beacon to the whole world. However, as history has played out, the battle for these rights has proven at times to be hard-won rights that we have to continually fight for and renew.  First Amendment rights are a cornerstone to this nation’s government and citizens have a right to discuss issues that are of importance.  The freedom is speech is in place for all of us – including the citizens of Tredyffrin Township.  Further, freedom of speech includes ‘me’ as a citizen and Community Matters.

In 1996, Pennsylvania federal judge Stewart Dalzell, wrote his opinion in the ACLU v. Reno, the Internet – Freedom of Speech case, “As the most participatory form of mass speech yet developed, the Internet deserves the highest protection from government intrusion. It also deserves a great deal of attention from civil liberties activists who are concerned about free speech, privacy, and universal access – because the larger the scale of a new medium, the greater the temptation to restrict it.”  As background, Dalzell, a 1969 graduate of Penn Law School, was recommended by Pennsylvania Senators Heinz and Spector and nominated by President George Bush to fill a judicial vacancy on the federal bench in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in 1990. He was confirmed by the Senate in 1991.

The last couple of months since DiBuonaventuro’s September 5 letter appeared on the township website have given me time to reflect.  Because all township supervisors, the former township manager and township solicitor supported DiBuonaventuro’s letter and use of the government letterhead and resources, I knew that I needed to take a stand for First Amendment rights in Tredyffrin Township.  If an elected official is permitted to use the public website whenever they disagree with a news story, what’s next for the citizens of Tredyffrin Township? Where will it stop?  What recourse do citizens have — we are not permitted the use of the township website to defend ourselves.  The end result … a chilling effect intended to silence all those who disagree.

To be clear, DiBuonaventuro is entitled to his own freedom of speech; he has every right to explain himself, defend, etc. He could write a letter to the editor, make a comment on Community Matters, etc. etc. — I simply do not think it is OK to use Government resources for a personal matter by an elected official.

As a result of the September 5, 2012 letter written by township supervisor John DiBuonaventuro, using the government letterhead, government website and government resources, I sought legal counsel and have retained the services of attorney Samuel Stretton.  The following letter from Stretton dated October 25, 2012 was mailed to each member of Tredyffrin Township’s Board of Supervisors. To date, there has been no response.

October 25, 2012

Michelle H. Kichline, Chair
Board of Supervisors, Tredyffrin Township
1100 Duportail Road
Berwyn, PA 19312-1079

John P. DiBuonaventuro, Vice Chair
Board of Supervisors, Tredyffrin Township
1100 Duportail Road
Berwyn, PA 19312-1079

Philip Donahue
Board of Supervisors, Tredyffrin Township
1100 Duportail Road
Berwyn, PA 19312-1079

Michael C. Heaberg
Board of Supervisors, Tredyffrin Township
1100 Duportail Road
Berwyn, PA 19312-1079

Kristen K. Mayock
Board of Supervisors, Tredyffrin Township
1100 Duportail Road
Berwyn, PA 19312-1079

Paul W. Olson
Board of Supervisors, Tredyffrin Township
1100 Duportail Road
Berwyn, PA 19312-1079

Evelyn Richter
Board of Supervisors, Tredyffrin Township
1100 Duportail Road
Berwyn, PA 19312-1079

Dear Supervisors:

Please be advised I have been retained by Pattye Benson, in reference to a letter of September 5, 2012 written by Supervisor John DiBuonaventuro. This letter was posted on the Tredyffrin Township website.  This letter was done on the letterhead of the Board of Supervisors.  Attached and marked as Exhibit “A” is a copy of the September 5th letter.

This letter of Mr. DiBuonaventuro, in effect, used Government funds, Government letterhead, and a Government website to respond to a private blog on his personal issues. I believe it is entirely inappropriate to allow a Government official to use Government resources to respond to matters involving his personal conduct.  I understand there was and is no policy as to the use of the government website and the expenditure of government funds.

I am asking that this Board immediately adopt a policy so this sort of misconduct and abuse of the First Amendment will not occur again.  I am also asking that an apology be placed on the website. Further, I am asking that the letter be rejected by the Board as inappropriate to be placed on the township website.

Further, the letter is inaccurate. The blog “Community Matters” is written by Ms. Benson to raise important community issues. The blog at issue concerned the conduct of the Tredyffrin Township Police Department in not appearing at the two criminal hearings for a member of the Zoning Board. There were two different cases, and both were set for the same day.  Coincidentally, neither officer appeared on that day, resulting in the cases being discharged. The failure to appear by two officers was surprising since the Tredyffrin police officers are known to always appear at criminal hearings. Clearly, the failure to appear raised some questions.

The blog “Community Matters” also raised the question about one of the supervisors and his relationship with the Zoning Board member. These are valid issues of public discussion and concern.

The letter, which is dated September 5, 2012, from Supervisor DiBuonaventuro, is essentially a personal attack on Ms. Benson, supposedly defending himself. This type of personal letter has no place on the Board of Supervisors letterhead and no place on the township website.

What is particularly disturbing is the last paragraph on the first page where Mr. DiBuonaventuro, using Government resources, Government letterhead, and the Government website, criticizes legitimate discussions of public business. He calls this a “disturbing trend”. He utilized the Government website to bully “Community Matters” and others.

This conduct, using Government resources to respond to those who speak out or discuss Government issues is unacceptable and should be disavowed by the Government immediately. If Mr. DiBuonaventuro is not able to accept public criticism, he ought to resign as Supervisor. Those who choose to hold public office have my respect.  But as part of serving, one has to understand there will be differences of opinion, which should be welcomed as part of the public discussions. To utilize the platform of the Government website and Government letterhead to try to bully bloggers is totally unacceptable and foreign to the First Amendment.

This improper website use and letter has to be put in the context that my client then received a phone call from the Township Manager with the Police Chief on the same line. Clearly, such a tactic has the effect of chilling legitimate speech.

Further, when Ms. Benson spoke to the Township Manager about the letter, the response was an email dated September 7th to Ms. Benson criticizing her and supporting the use of public resources of the Supervisor without approval to criticize public comments.

It is a sad day if the Government resources can be used by Supervisors to defend their own personal issues. But it is a sadder day when the Government resources and the authority of the Government is used to try to chill First Amendment discussions.

I am requesting an apology to Ms. Benson and I ask that a policy be put in place to prevent Government resources to be used for individuals to express their personal dislike or disagreement of articles. It is unacceptable that an individual can use the power of Government to try to bully and prevent legitimate discussions of questionable conduct by Government officials.  I will await your advice. I hope to have a response in the next 7 days.

Very truly yours,

Samuel C. Stretton

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