News Story

Court: New Buffalo mayor violated citizen’s First Amendment rights

Property owner criticized restrictions on short-term rentals; mayor had police haul her out of city council meeting

A federal judge sided with the owner of rental property in New Buffalo, ruling that the city’s mayor violated her First Amendment rights when he forced her out of a city council meeting.

Laura Murray’s visit to a New Buffalo City Council meeting Nov. 19, 2021, ended when Mayor John Humphrey asked law enforcement to remove her from the room. Murray filed suit in federal court, alleging that Humphrey and the city violated her right to free speech.

Judge Robert J. Jonker of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan ruled in favor of Murray in an April 6 decision. Michigan Capitol Confidential first reported on the lawsuit March 18, 2022.

Humphrey asked law enforcement officials to remove Murray from the council meeting, after she opposed an ordinance that would sharply limit short-term rental property permits in New Buffalo. While Murray was critical of council members who supported the ordinance, a video of the meeting shows she did not threaten them.

The police report of the incident obtained by CapCon characterizes Murray as engaging in loud and disorderly conduct.

“I am satisfied with the judgment and happy that Mayor John Humphrey and the City of New Buffalo are being held accountable for their violation of my First Amendment rights,” Murray said.

Jonker wrote in his decision that the mayor applied council rules in way that created viewpoint discrimination.

“The mayor cut off entirely any remark that was critical of the city council and his leadership in precisely the short-term rental issue at hand,” the judge wrote. “The right to criticize public officials, within bounds, is a core right protected by the First Amendment. Here the mayor’s application of the rules violated that right.”

Humphrey told CapCon he considers the ruling a split decision. Humphrey noted five points from the decision:

  • Plaintiffs’ request for injunctive/declaratory relief is moot. Plaintiffs were not successful in their effort to get a court order controlling the council’s future application of its rules.
  • Plaintiffs’ attempt to challenge the new council rules is not ripe.
  • The former version of the council rules is facially constitutional.
  • No as-applied violation relative to the November 23, 2021 meeting.
  • The mayor is entitled to legislative immunity related to the claim against him individually.

Still the court did find that the mayor violated Murray’s First Amendment rights, said Steve Delie, an attorney at the Mackinac Center.

“Public officials have a duty to treat all viewpoints, even those they disagree with, with equal dignity,” Delie said. “Unfortunately, Mayor Humphrey violated the First Amendment rights of those who disagreed with his opinion on short-term rentals. The court found that the mayor applied constitutional rules in an unconstitutional way. This should be a reminder that public officials must allow opposing views to be heard in public forums.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.