Arrest Violated County Official’s Free Speech Rights, Judge Rules

Heated disagreements were not unusual at Board of Commissioners meetings in Trumbull County, Ohio, after Niki Frenchko took office in January 2021, becoming the only Republican on the three-member board. But the tensions erupted in July 2022, ending in Ms. Frenchko’s arrest after she continued to speak her mind during a public meeting.

A federal judge ruled on Tuesday that the arrest violated the constitutional rights of Ms. Frenchko, who had been criticizing the sheriff and ignored another commissioner’s order to apologize before she was arrested.

“Here in America, we do not arrest our political opponents,” Judge J. Philip Calabrese of the Northern District of Ohio wrote in the ruling on Tuesday.

Trumbull County, about 60 miles southeast of Cleveland, has a population of about 200,000 people. The commissioners are the administrative body for the county government.

The two other commissioners, Mauro Cantalamessa and Frank Fuda, were Democrats and Ms. Frenchko, as the lone Republican, saw it as her job to “needle” them, the ruling said. Mr. Fuda retired at the end of 2022.

“For their part, they viewed her as ignorant of the basic workings of county government and a nuisance, to put it mildly,” the ruling said. “As her colleagues became more and more frustrated and impatient with her, their personal and political disagreements grew increasingly heated.”

Ms. Frenchko broadcast her arrest, which took place after a dispute at a July 2022 commission meeting, in a livestream video. She was charged with disturbing a lawful meeting, but the charges were dropped several weeks later.

In April 2023, Ms. Frenchko filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the two other commissioners, the board of commissioners, the county, the sheriff’s office and two sheriff’s office sergeants, saying that her First Amendment rights had been violated and that the sheriff’s office did not have probable cause to arrest her.

Judge Calabrese agreed in his ruling on Tuesday, but stopped short of striking down the Ohio law that had allowed for her arrest. The statute prohibits obstructive conduct or speech that “outrages the sensibilities of the group.”

The judge said that the two other commissioners; Sheriff Paul Monroe; and the two sheriff’s deputies, Sergeant Harold Wix and Sergeant Robert Ross, were personally liable for damages, which will be determined at a later hearing.

“This ruling both vindicates what I have done in the past and gives me the strength to continue fearlessly doing the people’s business in the months and years ahead,” Ms. Frenchko said in a statement.

Andrew Yosowitz, a lawyer for the two sergeants, said in an email that they planned to appeal.

“When Ms. Frenchko repeatedly interrupted and disrupted the commissioners meeting, Sgts. Wix and Ross acted reasonably to enforce Ohio law, which protects the First Amendment by prohibiting a person — any person — from disrupting a lawful meeting,” Mr. Yosowitz said.

Lawyers representing the county, the sheriff’s office, the board of commissioners, Sheriff Monroe, Mr. Fuda and Mr. Cantalamessa did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Judge Calabrese said in his ruling that “without question” Ms. Frenchko was removed from the meeting because she “communicated a message disfavored by those in power.”

The dispute stemmed from a meeting in early June 2022, when Ms. Frenchko read into the record a letter from the mother of a man who was jailed in Trumbull County. The letter writer said that her son had received inadequate medical attention after he contracted meningitis.

Sheriff Monroe wrote a letter in July demanding that Ms. Frenchko apologize for the statements she had made and criticized her for reading the letter in public because its claims had not been verified.

Since 2010, at least seven lawsuits have been filed alleging that the rights of inmates at the Trumbull County Jail had been violated, The Cincinnati Enquirer reported.

Mr. Fuda directed a clerk to read the sheriff’s letter at a commission meeting on July 7, 2022. Ms. Frenchko interrupted the clerk and objected, the ruling said. Mr. Fuda ordered her to stop interrupting, using his gavel and raising his voice, but Ms. Frenchko continued objecting and mocked the clerk, who started to cry, the ruling said.

After the clerk finished reading, Ms. Frenchko discussed the letter for about two minutes, the ruling said. Mr. Cantalamessa interrupted her and said, “You are talking about the chief law enforcement officer in Trumbull County; it’s unacceptable.”

The argument continued and Mr. Fuda told Ms. Frenchko to apologize to the sheriff. “If you don’t, we’re going to move on,” he said, according to the ruling.

Ms. Frenchko continued speaking.

The sergeants directed her to leave the hearing room and she was placed in handcuffs outside it, as she recorded the interaction on her cellphone. The ruling said that Ms. Frenchko was then led to the county jail, which is in the same building, and was released later that day.

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