Astonished, confused, angry, sad — those were my feelings after my disorderly conduct conviction Tuesday. My citation was for allegedly “intending to cause public inconvenience, annoyance, or alarm” by an act that “serves no legitimate purpose of the actor.”
The three officers who arrested me all testified that I had a legitimate purpose for speaking at a public meeting held April 28 at the Conestoga Fire Hall. From that, it would seem there is no crime to prosecute. Their testimony also established that I did not yell, curse, gesture, physically assault, threaten, or ask for a reaction from the audience.
In fact, I did nothing other than fail to use a question mark and speak over the sound of the supervisor’s interruption to state: “I have a First Amendment right to speak briefly regarding the topic.” I was interrupted only a few seconds after I started speaking and was at the microphone fewer than two minutes before police took it from me. Video is available on the township website to verify this.
The meeting at which I was arrested involved home rule — a matter of profound importance to the Conestoga community. The community needed to hear the facts presented in an unbiased and nonpolitical manner. In that spirit, I spoke in an effort to correct some key misstatements.
Supervisor Chairman Craig Eshleman told the room our Conestoga Community Group was invited to participate in the presentation but declined. In reality, we were given 12 hours to submit the name of a speaker who was qualified to speak on home rule, a township resident and not a candidate for the home rule commission. It was impossible to find that person in such a short time over a weekend.
We responded the next day, saying we wanted to participate and would submit a name shortly. When we did, we were denied participation. The audience needed to know we did not simply decline.
Most importantly, Elam Herr, of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, twice incorrectly referred to the upcoming vote as being for or against home rule. The May 19 vote was actually to seat a commission to study local government and consider home rule. If the commission recommended home rule, a vote on a home rule charter would have occurred in a later election. Confusion on this point might have affected the upcoming vote.
An earlier presenter, who made eight statements and was not arrested, clarified the same misstatement. However, he uses a wheelchair and was not given a microphone. I could not hear him half-way across the room, and this point was very important for all to hear.
I also was attempting to clarify a third point related to a municipal bankruptcy that was only partially explained so as to encourage a “no” vote on home rule.
The supervisors’ arbitrary and unconstitutional rules dictated two questions, limiting discussion on a complex subject and outlawing any meaningful clarification. I decided that trying to clarify the statements of the township officials' hand-picked speakers by rephrasing my statements as questions in a “Jeopardy!”-like fashion would likely result in more confusion.
From this experience, I take away more questions than answers.
— Why were parameters for the meeting not limited to comments on the topic, respectfully stated and reasonably brief, as is the norm for public meetings?
— Why would public officials, committed to unbiased and nonpolitical information, try to control phrasing of public comment?
— Why did the chief of police repeatedly testify that it was a “limited public” forum that he felt should be exempt from constitutional protections? This meeting was widely advertised by the township as open to the public and hosted by the supervisors: A copy of their flier proves it.
— Why was I the only one arrested? Twenty-nine citizens spoke; only nine followed the rules.
I strongly believe my First Amendment right to free speech was intentionally violated. I am certain the violation and my arrest were politically motivated and likely influenced the outcome of a very important vote. The referendum on home rule lost by only 84 votes, and there were hundreds of people in that room.
Despite personal cost in both stress and money, I will appeal to a higher court Judge Joshua Keller’s decision finding me guilty of disorderly conduct. I will do so because an important principle is at stake — something that became very personal for me only days before I spoke at that public meeting.
I was at my son’s graduation from Army basic training in Missouri. I watched with tears as Kyle and hundreds of young men and women swore to give their lives to protect the U.S. Constitution. I will move forward with this fight because, no matter the outcome, I will not set a lesser example for him.
Kimberly Kann, a 25-year resident of Conestoga Township, is a member of Conestoga Community Group.