Little Rock absolved of violating rights
City told to ease critic’s new ban from official buildings
The city manager testified that he feared for his life, as well as those of his family and colleagues, after [Luke] Skrable emailed him the night of the 2015 meeting, saying in part, “Your days are numbered.”
Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola didn’t violate Luke Skrable’s First Amendment rights in denying his request to address the city Board of Directors for three minutes in early 2015, but the city probably went too far in recently extending a ban to keep Skrable out of city buildings, a federal judge said Monday.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Beth Deere issued her preliminary ruling from the bench after a three-hour trial regarding Skrable’s lawsuit against Stodola, City Manager Bruce Moore and the city. However, she said the question of whether the latest ban is constitutional involves a lot of case law, much of it unclear, and that she would issue a more detailed written order in several days.
Meanwhile, Deere urged attorneys for both sides to work together to find a solution that is “a little less broad” than the current ban for allowing Skrable to attend meetings about his neighborhood while ensuring the safety of others, including Moore.
The city manager testified that he feared for his life, as well as those of his family and colleagues, after Skrable emailed him the night of the 2015 meeting, saying in part, “Your days are numbered.”
Skrable was later convicted of two counts of terroristic threatening, for that email and for a voice mail he had left with the Public Works office in September 2014. But he reiterated Monday he only meant Moore’s days as city manager were numbered and that he would never physically harm Moore.
The ban that followed was in place for two years, by agreement of a circuit judge who approved it as part of a probationary sentence. But in March, Moore denied Skrable’s request to lift it, saying Skrable can ask again in one year.
“I don’t think the city can ban him forever,” Deere said. “I do think banning him from all city buildings with only yearly appeals is too limiting.”
She told Skrable that even if he knew he wasn’t going to harm Moore, his words are “reasonably perceived as a threat,” and she thought Moore’s concern was valid.
Stodola said later he was “confident we did not deny him his First Amendment rights” and he considered the city victorious on both of Skrable’s contentions — that his rights were violated by being prohibited from speaking at the meeting, and by the continued ban.
Moore said afterward he intends to talk with City Attorney Tom Carpenter to try to develop some parameters for the ban, but he was gratified the judge found Skrable’s email was “clearly a threat and that my actions were reasonable.”
Stodola said some specifics that need to be discussed, in response to Deere’s urging, are more frequent reviews of the ban and loosening the restriction on some buildings or areas affected by it.
Deere also explained to Skrable the words “alleged” and “allegedly” don’t imply that someone is lying, addressing Skrable’s main reason — offered publicly for the first time Monday — for wanting to address the board at the Jan. 20, 2015, meeting.
Skrable testified he had attended the previous board meeting on Jan. 6, 2015, because he wanted to know why he hadn’t received any response to his roughly four-dozen Freedom of Information Act requests for information on if and why the city had transferred the responsibility of maintaining ditches in southwest Little Rock from the Public Works department to private property owners.
He said he wanted to know because a zoning supervisor had indicated the responsibility for maintenance of some ditches between Baseline Road and Interstate 30, near Skrable’s home, had been transferred to four businesses that adjoin them. Skrable said the ditches weren’t being maintained as well as they were before, which negatively affected his property value. He was seeking details on the type of maintenance the businesses were required to do, such as whether they were required to remove weeds, trash, shrubs and trees of a certain height.
At the Jan. 6 meeting, in response to Skrable’s complaints to board members he had not received answers, Stodola asked Moore to prepare a memorandum to explain if there had been a change in ditch maintenance policy. In the process, Stodola told board members Skrable had “made an allegation that the ditch maintenance had changed.”
It was that utterance, Skrable said Monday, that was the main focus of his return visit two weeks later. He testified he was offended by the word “allegation,” which he took to imply that he was incorrect.
At the Jan. 20 meeting, Skrable filled out a yellow Citizen Communication card indicating his reasons for wanting to address the board in the three minutes allotted. His first card said he wanted to discuss “gross abuse of the FOI Act.”
Stodola testified he wanted more specifics, to see if the remarks violated the board’s “one-time policy” that prevents residents from discussing the same issue twice, so he asked a city clerk to obtain a second card with more information. On the second card, Skrable said he wanted to “address incorrect mayor comments from 1-16 meeting.”
Skrable testified Monday he actually wanted to discuss both the continued lack of adequate response to his Freedom of Information Act requests, as well as a need for Stodola to apologize.
Stodola said he didn’t want to discuss the Freedom of Information Act issue until Moore had enough time to respond to his earlier directive.
He said he approached Skrable in a City Hall corridor during a break and, “I said, ‘Hey Luke, what’s this about?’ He said, ‘About the ditches,’ and I said, ‘We’ve already addressed that.’”
If he had known Skrable wanted to speak on a new subject, even if it led to criticism aimed at him, “of course I would have let him speak,” Stodola said, citing “dozens and dozens” of previous times he let Skrable address the board.
Skrable testified he told Stodola during the break he wanted to discuss an apology from Stodola. He contended, through attorney Ed Adcock of Little Rock, that Stodola’s refusal to let him speak was because Stodola didn’t want the board to hear that criticism, which meant Stodola denied him on the content of his speech, which is unconstitutional.
But Deere said, “I don’t think Mr. Stodola intended to prevent Mr. Skrable from speaking with the intention of avoiding hearing criticism.” She added that criticism “is just the nature of public service,” and that Stodola is used to it. She also noted Stodola had allowed Skrable to address the board dozens of previous times, and according to Skrable, denied him only five previous times.