The man who lay down in front of the dais and was dragged out of a City Council meeting June 20 after calling Muslims “monstrous maniacs” has filed a lawsuit against the city, claiming his constitutional rights were violated.
Albemarle resident Joe Draego, 64, has been a regular at Charlottesville City Council meetings, voicing his concerns about Muslim immigrants. “Every time I’ve been there, I’ve said it’s not all Muslims,” says Draego.
At the June 20 meeting, during which councilors passed a gun control resolution after the Orlando nightclub slayings, Draego spoke again at the end of the meeting and said the Koran instructs Muslims to “kill the sodomites and those who allow themselves to be sodomized,” and described Muslims as “monstrous maniacs.” At that point, Mayor Mike Signer, who implemented new procedures for public comment at the beginning of the year, told Draego that those rules prohibit “group defamation.”
“I have a right to speak,” said Draego. “The Constitution gives me the right to speak.” He then lay on the floor and two police officers removed him.
Attorney Jeff Fogel, another regular at City Council meetings who objected to the new procedures, filed the lawsuit on behalf of Draego. “The suit maintains that there is no such thing as ‘group defamation,’ that the rule is unconstitutional since it allows for praise of a group but not negative comments,” Fogel says in a statement.
John Whitehead, founder of the local civil liberties organization, the Rutherford Institute, predicted the city would be sued. In a March 9 letter to City Council, he expressed concerns about the constitutionality of the new rules.
“What’s an improper comment?” asks Whitehead in an August 1 interview. “That the mayor has a big nose?” he says as an example, adding that he has no idea what size the mayor’s nose is, but that “improper comment” was not clearly defined.
Individuals can sue for defamation, he says, but not groups. The Founding Fathers called the British “tyrants,” says Whitehead, speech that also would be prohibited by City Council rules. “Today Jefferson and Patrick Henry would be thrown out of there,” he says.
In a statement, City Attorney Craig Brown says, “Courts have long recognized that local elected bodies have a significant interest in maintaining civility and orderliness during the public comment portions of a public meeting, and to that end the City Code requires the mayor to preserve the order and decorum of council’s meetings.
“Unfortunately, on June 20 Mr. Draego’s conduct was intimidating and disruptive to the evening’s proceedings and plainly violated City Council’s standards of order and decorum.”
For Draego, the lawsuit is a “small pushback” to maintain free speech. “I see my country disappearing before my eyes,” he says. “We ask questions and [city councilors] will not answer. We are marginalized.”
Draego wants elected officials to engage in conversation with citizens. And he says he’s “not a racist or bigot,” and those who consider his comments hate speech should be speaking out themselves against terrorist atrocities.
“I want City Council to tell the [International Rescue Committee] to not allow unattached Muslim males between 15 and 45,” says Draego. “And for every Muslim family, bring in a Christian family.”