Jury awards $17,500 in free-speech case against former Los Banos mayor Tommy Jones

June 19, 2014 

A federal court jury in Fresno last week ruled that a former Los Banos mayor owes $17,500 to a one-time resident whose microphone went dead mid-speech during a presentation at a city council meeting.

The jury found that Tommy Jones violated Eugene Forte's free-speech rights by cutting off his microphone while he addressed the Los Banos City Council.

Forte, who represented himself at the civil trial, was awarded $10,000 in general damages and $7,500 in punitive damages after a week-long trial.

According to court documents, Forte attended a Los Banos City Council meeting in May 2008 and addressed the council about a recall he had organized against Jones. Under council rules, Forte had five minutes to speak, but about two minutes into his time, as he was reading the recall petition, the microphone went dead.

In a trial brief, Forte wrote that after the microphone went dead, he "asked that his time be double checked because it was under the five minutes. Jones instead of answering Forte and without any warning had Forte thrown out of the meeting."

Forte was prohibited from returning to the meeting, his brief says, "under the threat of arrest."

In his trial brief, Jones acknowledges that the microphone went dead and then Los Banos Police Chief Chris Gallagher escorted Forte out of the council chamber.

But Jones contends that the microphone "was cut off by mistake." The brief also says the timer had not been reset and Jones believed Forte had used up the allotted five minutes to speak.

Jones' brief also says that for Forte to win his claim that he was forcibly removed from the chambers on Jones' orders, he had to prove that Gallagher was Jones' subordinate. Jones contended that he had no control over Gallagher, who under the Los Banos Municipal Code answers to the city manager.

The lawsuit was initially filed in superior court before being moved in May 2011 to U.S. District Court in Fresno.

In March 2013, U.S. District Judge Anthony W. Ishii -- who presided over the trial -- dismissed two of Forte's three claims against Jones.

The first was a defamation claim involving a comment Jones made about Forte at a May 2007 May Day parade in Los Banos. The second was an "intentional infliction of emotional distress" claim related to the city council meeting incident.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6320, jellis@fresnobee.com or @johnellis24 on Twitter.

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