Otero County agrees to $45K settlement after unfair treatment during meeting
OTERO COUNTY, N.M. – Where is the line between free speech, and a public disturbance?
That is the question the ACLU asked the Otero County Commission when they approached the county with a potential lawsuit stemming from an argument in a November meeting.
KOB 4 spoke to the man who was escorted out of the commission chambers by the sheriff.
Matt Crecelius says he had been kicked out before for speaking out against proposed book bans, and for sharing other opinions most would consider liberal. Now, he’s getting tens of thousands of dollars from the county.
According to the ACLU, there were multiple occasions where Crecelius was illegally silenced by the Otero County Commission.
“There is a long-standing thing here in Otero County of repressing freedom of speech when it comes to differing opinions,” said Crecelius, an Otero County resident.
The most recent example came from November’s commissioner meeting when an uproar started after former county commissioner Couy Griffin was speaking during public comment.
“Looking up here at you Stephanie in this seat is a total disgrace,” Griffin said in November.
This led to a loud back and forth between commissioners and the crowd, until the Chair of the Commission Vickie Marquardt asked for everyone to leave the chambers.
After a short break, the meeting was called back to order and Griffin was allowed to continue to speak.
But, after Griffin’s comments, the sheriff approached Crecelius who was sitting in the back of the room – telling him to stop being disruptive.
“It is incredibly important that politicians don’t abuse their power to silence views they don’t like and that’s exactly what happened with Mr. Crecelius here,” said Alexandra Smith, an attorney with the ACLU.
Smith says this incident – paired with other times the commission has had Crecelius removed – are blatant violations of the Constitution.
“In a democracy, people have to be free to be able to express their fears and views without fear of retaliation, and the Otero County commissioners really violated this very basic principle of democracy,” Smith said.
Smith and the ACLU approached the Otero County Commission with a lawsuit, but it was ultimately settled out of court. The commission agreed to pay Crecelius $45,000.
“Relief, validation, vindication. It’s a way forward all the great work like the ACLU doing with everything else and holding organizations and government organizations and individuals accountable, so we can have a voice,” said Smith.
Smith adds this settlement sends an important message to all government officials that people have a right to participate in government and express their views.