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Lawsuit: City stifled black leaders' talk of police shooting

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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A Louisiana city official violated the free-speech rights of black community leaders who were removed from a public meeting when they tried to talk about a black man's fatal shooting by police, a federal lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit, filed Monday, says Baton Rouge city councilman Scott Wilson ordered police to remove several audience members who tried to speak at a Metro Council meeting this year about the shooting death of Alton Sterling. A white Baton Rouge police officer shot and killed the 37-year-old Sterling outside a convenience store in July 2016.

Police arrested nearly 200 people at protests in the days after the shooting. Those arrests led to a recent class-action settlement of claims that police violated protesters' civil rights and used excessive force in arresting them.

The newly filed lawsuit claims Baton Rouge has a long history of suppressing "black voices" that was evident again at the May 10 council meeting, when one of the three plaintiffs, Gary Chambers, was arrested on charges of disturbing the peace and resisting arrest. He was handcuffed, taken to a station and released that day, but the criminal case against him remains unresolved, according to his lawyer, William Most.

"The message to Baton Rouge's Black community is clear. If you speak out on the streets, you will be removed and arrested. If you speak out on private property, you will be removed and arrested. And if you speak out in the Metro Council chamber, you will be removed and arrested," the lawsuit says.

Wilson, the Metro Council's president, didn't immediately respond to a phone call and email seeking comment.

Wilson had invited public comments on a settlement over damage from a sewer backup when Michael McClanahan, president of the NAACP's Baton Rouge branch, approached a podium to speak. Wilson ordered police officers to remove McClanahan from the meeting immediately after he mentioned Sterling's name, the suit says.

McClanahan and Eugene Collins are the other plaintiffs suing Wilson and the city of Baton Rouge over their removal. Three others were removed as well.

"These six citizens were not loud. They were not disruptive. But they all had something in common - they were there to talk about the police killing of Alton Sterling and their criticism of the Baton Rouge Police Department," the suit says.

The suit asks the court to rule that Wilson violated the First Amendment in ordering their removal, and seeks a "reasonable" award for attorneys' fees and costs.

The Justice Department ruled out any federal criminal charges against the two white officers who struggled with Sterling before his July 5, 2016, shooting. Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry's office is still reviewing evidence to determine whether any state criminal charges are warranted.

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Michael Kunzelman


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