Sign raises free speech concerns

WILMINGTON — It comes down to a case of being denied the right to free speech.

So says former Felton resident Gordon Smith. He further claims that Delaware’s highest official was witness to the incident in which his First Amendment rights were denied.

More than a year later, Mr. Smith is hopeful his claims will bring about a review of Delaware Capitol Police policies.

The charge comes out of an Oct. 6, 2014, incident when Mr. Smith says a Capitol Police officer removed him from a public ceremony to recognize October as Domestic Violence Awareness Month, ostensibly because

Mr. Smith was displaying a two-sided poster.

Gordon Smith holds a poster he said he briefly displayed at a Domestic Violence Awareness Month commemoration held at the Governor’s Conference Room in the Carvel State Building in Wilmington on Oct. 6, 2014. (Submitted photo/Gordon Smith)

Gordon Smith holds a poster he said he briefly displayed at a Domestic Violence Awareness Month commemoration held at the Governor’s Conference Room in the Carvel State Building in Wilmington on Oct. 6, 2014. (Submitted photo/Gordon Smith)

Mr. Smith believes it was non-offensive in content and displayed in a non-disruptive manner.

The meeting was held in Gov. Jack Markell’s office in the Carvel State Building, according to multiple sources, and the governor was present.

Mr. Smith has been told his concerns have gone unresolved because of the press of the past legislative session.

However, before he retired as Delaware Department of Safety and Homeland Security Secretary, Lewis Schiliro said his office had taken Mr. Smith’s comments in an Oct. 12 letter “under advisement” and would review Delaware Capitol Police policies. Secretary Schiliro responded to Mr. Smith on Oct. 28, 2015.

The Department of Safety and Homeland Security oversees Capitol Police, whose Chief John Horsman wrote in an Aug. 20 letter the incident had been reviewed and an officer’s response was deemed appropriate.

“No further action will be taken at this time,” Chief Horsman said in correspondence with attorney David L. Finger, who was representing Mr. Smith at the time and who sent Capitol Police a letter on Aug. 3 detailing his concerns.

The former Homeland secretary’s pledge for a Capitol Police review met with Mr. Smith’s approval.

“It showed a certain caliber of ethics on his part,” said Mr. Smith, 50, who now lives in the Daytona Beach, Florida, area and works as a loss prevention agent.

“In our form of government, a democracy, as a citizen that’s what you feel should happen when your rights are violated. By saying they are going to review the policies, it is a step in the right direction.

“It affects all of his. To paraphrase what Martin Luther King Jr. said, if one person’s rights are violated then all our rights are violated.”

On Friday, Homeland Security spokeswoman Kimberly Chandler issued a statement that the department “has taken (Mr. Smith’s) comments under advisement and will review the policies of the Delaware Capitol Police.”

Removed from meeting

According to Mr. Smith, the messages on the posters included “Stop ignoring victims of domestic abuse” in capital letters on one side and “False allegations of domestic abuse is another form of domestic abuse” on the other.

“He pretty much said don’t come back in here,” Mr. Smith said of the Capitol Police officer he claims escorted him out of the public meeting.

“I don’t remember if he gave a reason why.”

Just over a year after the alleged sequence, Mr. Smith said he remains baffled on why it occurred.

“It wasn’t anything offensive or derogatory, it was very discreet,” he said of the sign.

“If anything it bolstered the fact that we needed to be aware of all forms of domestic abuse.”

Mr. Smith said he was removed from the conference room shortly after state Sen. Patricia M. Blevins, D-Elsmere, began her opening remarks acknowledging Domestic Violence Week. He claims Ms. Blevins, the Senate’s president pro tempore, could be seen and heard on a video captured by a conference attendee telling him to put his sign down just a few seconds before his ouster.

Sen. Patricia Blevins, D-Elsmere, makes opening remarks at a Domestic Violence Awareness Month commemoration on Oct. 6, 2014, as Delaware Gov. Jack Markell and Deputy Chief of Staff Drew Fennell look on. Submitted photo/Gordon Smith)

Sen. Patricia Blevins, D-Elsmere, makes opening remarks at a Domestic Violence Awareness Month commemoration on Oct. 6, 2014, as Delaware Gov. Jack Markell and Deputy Chief of Staff Drew Fennell look on. Submitted photo/Gordon Smith)

Mr. Smith is not identified clearly on the video.

This week, a spokesman for Sen. Blevins did confirm that “yes, as the video shows, Sen. Blevins did briefly ask Mr. Smith to lower the sign.”

Senate Majority Caucus Director of Communications Jesse Chadderdon said, “Sen. Blevins had nothing to do with his removal and at no point instructed anyone to remove him from the event.”

Mr. Chadderdon said a July 12 letter from Sen. Blevins to Mr. Smith’s then-attorney David L. Finger, “further details the role she played as the event’s emcee.

“Because Mr. Smith previously has threatened legal action, Sen. Blevins will not be commenting further on this incident.”

Attempts to reach Chief Horsman for comment this week were unsuccessful.

‘Not offensive, disruptive’

In a letter written to Chief Horsman, Mr. Finger described Mr. Smith as an advocate against domestic violence who was holding a self-made sign at chin level while seated in the conference room. He said Mr. Smith “sat quietly and did not engage in any disruptive action. …”

Standing within a few feet of Sen. Blevins at the beginning of the ceremony was Gov. Markell. When asked for comment earlier this week, a spokeswoman said the governor’s office trusted the Capitol Police.

“We have confidence in the Capitol Police to follow appropriate policies and procedures,” spokeswoman Kelly Bachman said in a statement.

Of Gov. Markell’s response to the supposed situation, Mr. Smith said, “It was definitely a passive acquiesce to the whole thing.”

Initially it appeared that Sen. Blevins instructed Capitol Police to remove Mr. Smith, Mr. Finger wrote.

Based on Sen. Blevins’ denial of having anything to do with the action, however, Mr. Finger maintained that responsibility fell on Capitol Police.

Citing financial constraints, Mr. Smith said he does not currently have legal representation. At this point, he wants Capitol Police and Sen. Blevins to acknowledge that, according to him, his First Amendment rights were violated at the meeting and that he did not engage in civil disobedience.

Displaying a poster

In an earlier response letter to Mr. Finger dated July 17, Sen. Blevins acknowledged Mr. Smith displayed a poster while Gov. Markell was preparing to sign a Domestic Violence Awareness Month proclamation on Oct. 6, 2014.

Sen. Patricia Blevins

Sen. Patricia Blevins

She said Capitol Police told Mr. Smith and another person on arriving at the Carvel Building in Wilmington that “posters and disruptions were not allowed at this event. …”

The other man left his poster at the front desk in the lobby, Sen. Blevins said.

“I approached a Capitol Police officer to ask about the poster — whether it was allowed or should he be asked to put it down, I don’t recall,” Sen. Blevins wrote to Mr. Finger.

“The Capitol Police officer said that he would take care of it. The next time I looked over at Mr. Smith’s seat, it was empty.

“I did not ask at any time that Mr. Smith be removed.”

Mr. Smith claims he was not told by Capitol Police of any conditions to attend the meeting. He also has requested to see surveillance video showing any interactions with courthouse security personnel.

Mr. Smith is not unknown to the senator. She said that based on “many” previous meetings which she attended with Mr. Smith present, she would not have thought to ask for him to be removed from any event.

While acknowledging she and Mr. Smith approached domestic violence awareness “from different perspectives, our interactions have been uniformly polite and respectful.”

Sen. Blevins also told Mr. Finger the delay in responding to his June 2 letter regarding Mr. Smith was because of the Senate’s “very busy Legislative session.”

She said Senate attorney Tim Willard had spoken with Mr. Finger in June to explain the delay.

Mr. Smith said he sent a formal request to the state Senate Ethics Committee to review the matter, but has not received a response.

Also, Mr. Smith said, attempts to reach out to multiple legislators have not been successful.

A formal request

In an emailed letter to Secretary Schiliro and Delaware state senators on Oct. 12, Mr. Smith said he formally requested an inquiry into Sen. Blevins and Chief Horsman and made a Freedom of Information Act request for Carvel State Building security camera footage from Oct. 6, 2014.

Mr. Smith asked Sen. Blevins recuse herself from the matter since she sits as the Senate Ethics Committee chairperson, “as it would otherwise show a conflict of interest.”

Mr. Smith claimed he could prove that:

• Sen. Blevins “defied the Constitution when she extinguished my passive, non-disruptive expression of free speech.

• Sen. Blevins, “in her response to my personal inquiry provided false information in regard to her actions and the events preceding the actual incident.

Capitol Police Chief John Horsman

Capitol Police Chief John Horsman

• Chief Horsman, “either failed to properly research and investigate my account of the incident regarding his officer or he himself (Chief Horsman) provided false information.

Mr. Smith said surveillance video within the Carvel State Building would confirm that Capitol Police never spoke with him about signage.

“The entire building is under complete camera surveillance,” Mr. Smith wrote. “I dare you to find any footage that ‘they’ spoke to me regarding this prior to the meeting.”

Also, Mr. Smith alleged, “The very brief video that I provide from the actual event contradicts Sen. Blevins’ account that she had nothing to do with my ejection and just happened to look up and notice my seat was empty.

“In the video, she is clearly looking right at me and can clearly be heard saying ‘put the sign down’ as the officer quickly moves towards me.”

Ultimately, Mr. Smith contends, “This was a public event and as such was a constitutionally protected free speech zone.

“She, nor the officer, had any right to suppress my passive expression and eject me from the signing ceremony.”

Reach staff writer Craig Anderson at canderson@newszap.com

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