‘Their first amendment rights were diminished,’ Oklahoma County Jail Trust votes to limit public comments

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OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – On Monday, the Oklahoma County Jail Trust passed a resolution that would allow the trust chair to have members of the public removed from the meeting if their behavior during public comment is deemed disruptive and some, including trustees, feel this move limits free speech. 

“So what’s the point in offering public comment if we literally have a way to end it every time for no reason?” Frances Ekwerekwu, an Oklahoma County Jail trust trustee, said during Monday’s trust meeting. 

There was a lot of debate at Monday’s meeting over a resolution that restructures public comment during the meetings. 

 “I could only see this increasing the number of people going into jail,” Trustee Sue An Arnall said. 

The resolution allows public comment at the beginning of the meetings, at the end of the meetings and on any agenda item. However, members of the public can only speak once during each meeting. 

Also, if a member of the public’s behavior is deemed disruptive, the trust chair can have them removed from the meeting and they could possibly face a misdemeanor, which is now permitted by law after Governor Stitt signed SB 403

“I really didn’t like that on the very last page of the resolution there was a sentence about, that we have the ability through that resolution to modify public comment any time we want to for no reason,” Ekwerekwu told News 4 on Tuesday. “I didn’t like the language at the very end of the resolution that gave us enforcement power. The new law makes it a misdemeanor, if you behave a certain way in public meetings.”

Those are reasons why Ekwerekwu is one of two of the eight trustees, along with Arnall, who voted no. 

“I feel for the public. I feel for the fact that their first amendment rights were diminished in a major way,” she said. 

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“What I want to tell people is, the vote yesterday is not stopping public comment,” Sheriff Tommie Johnson, who voted yes, said. “It is not in any way taking away your ability of free speech.”

Johnson told News 4 he feels it simply makes for more of an orderly process. 

“Disrupting the meetings, it really takes away from what we are ultimately trying to achieve and that is to lower the population at the Oklahoma County Jail,” Johnson said. 

Don Spencer, president of the Oklahoma Second Amendment Association, agrees. He sent out a letter on Tuesday saying in part, “The Oklahoma Second Amendment Association supports all free speech in public venues.”

So, News 4 asked for his thoughts on the Trust vote. 

“I’ve been to these meetings. They offer public comments. You can have your public comments. They just want to make sure that the meeting itself can continue and it’s completely responsible. I don’t have any problem with it,” Spencer said. 

The public comment changes take effect at the trust’s next meeting, which has not yet been scheduled.

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