David Suhor ECUA Legal Defense Fund
On 2.22.18, I was arrested at the Emerald Coast Utility Authority (ECUA, Pensacola Florida, our local elected water/sewage board) before their monthly meeting. I was charged with trespassing (because I would not be silent and quietly spoke a prayer before the meeting started) and resisting arrest without violence (for going limp, passively resisting).
Why? Before the meeting, I kindly, calmly spoke the Lord's Prayer to the (all-xtian) board members for several minutes - all before the Call to Order. I ended with the board chair, Lois Benson, at about the time she wanted to start their "unofficial" prayer. Again, before the actual meeting.
BACKGROUND: Chair Benson and ECUA (a non-legislative body, not allowed to pray under Galloway) only allows board members (illegal, exclusive, establishment clause violation). Secularists made offers before March 2015 and since. When that happened, Benson moved the invocations to before the Call to Order, on attorney advice. Why? So they can argue these prayers are unofficial... and not subject to legal scrutiny or inclusion. This also keeps them off the public record (she ordered video not to be recorded since).
After being thrown out and silenced at previous meetings, on this day I chose not to be silent until the meeting's Call to Order. I prayed calmly as Ms Benson started her own prayer. She could have continued, but objected to me exercising my free speech rights. She didn't ask me to leave. Instead she ordered a hired deputy to remove me. To be clear, she had me arrested for quietly praying to her BEFORE the meeting began, exactly what she was doing. She refused to issue the Call to Order (as I suggested), which I would have honored in silence. In short, Benson contends that, though not official, they can pray (on mic), but I had to be silent... BEFORE the meeting. NO!
Eventually, I was arrested and banned from future meetings. I did not comply with this unjust arrest, so I was charged with for resisting arrest too. Eight interesting hours later, I was home on bail. Also note: I did not get to speak out in the public forum... for the second time and counting. I've been unable to return, now 8 more times. I have POV video of most of this incident. All of it is on my youtube channel, shamalamagram.
UPDATE: 8.6.2018. The judge found me guilty on both counts. She said I purposely interrupted the "process" of starting their prayer. She ignored the fact that I was not ever asked to leave, as Chair Benson untruthfully claimed on the stand. She ignored that the Call to Order is the actual start of the meeting and that a public forum exists before that time. I got more than minimum sentence, costing me perhaps $700+, 3 months probation, 25 hours community service, and random drug/alcohol testing for some reason. She (Judge Joyce Williams) also gave ECUA license to silence the audience before the meeting begins, under threat of arrest, and to ban citizens from their meetings at will. So, these establishment clause, free speech and prayer violations will continue unabated.
This campaign is for the cost of appeal and/or my fines if an appeal is not feasible. If anything is left, I will use it as seed to sue ECUA for civil rights including unlawful arrest, battery and curbing free speech at and before government meetings. I do not benefit from this AT ALL. In fact, my efforts negatively impact my local life. I need these funds FIRST to get legal help to deal with these charges, THEN to bring some consequence to ECUA for their hypocritical choices in handling and hiding their illegal invocations with violence and Constitutional violations. Beyond the 'unofficial-but-still-a-meeting' issue, ECUA STILL hides their invocations from public video. Now they've added suppressing others' prayers and criticism of their actions.
I did not take these actions for myself, but simply to convince ECUA to either 1) embrace their illegal invocations and allow them to see the light of day, or 2) to stop ignoring the various legal failings of their invocation process and get right with legal precedent. Unfortunately, this is par for the course in the deep south. Three other local boards also discriminate and break the law with their invocations. Just look at the reaction from my July 2016 Satanic Temple invocation at the City Council.
UPDATE to yesterday's UPDATE: A wonderful, intelligent attorney (and musician, friend from my distant past) will be taking on my appeal. And it won't cost me $10k, like one estimate I got! It will take a while and I'll likely still have serve all my probation, but this gives me a good chance to clear my name and correct the ridiculous verdict - one that was directly contradicted by video evidence and that only happened because EUCA chair Lois Benson lied through her teeth (under oath) and the Judge Joyce Williams (apparently) believed her over video that showed otherwise.
I'm keeping my GoFundMe page active and I still welcome your contributions, though they are not as urgent. Funds therein will cover my court costs, fines and probation... some of which I'll get back if I win. If anything is left, it will go (after I win the appeal) to sue ECUA for the miscarriage of justice they initiated with their illegal 'pre-meeting' prayer subterfuge and the damages that resulted as they escalated. They include: me twice battered, falsely arrested, illegally banned from government meetings for 8 months (so far), made to serve probation with all its perks, and name dragged through the mud. All this for quietly saying the Lord's Prayer. I just hope we get to sue the shorts off this corrupt group of elected numb-nuts.
Unfortunately, I did not meet my goal. Accordingly, I will not undertake the (many) months long appeals process. The cost (emotional and monetary) is just too prohibitive. Instead, I will ask for my sentence to be adjusted. Some of the funds generated from this campaign will go defer the $600-700 of costs imposed by the judge in her obviously wrongful verdict... in addition to the 3 months probation, random drug/alcohol testing (WTF?) and 25 hours of community service I must serve.
My focus now moves to suing ECUA for violation of my free speech rights. Though a citizen, taxpayer and customer, I am officially banned, under threat of arrest, from attending their PUBLIC meetings. They are going to great lengths to silence me! In the past, the ECUA Chair had me battered and removed by their security guard (August 2017*) and illegally arrested, removed and found guilty of trespassing (February 2018* and trial last month). Find video on those incidents at the link below. The initial not guilty verdict even got a 2nd hearing. I may post video of it later. Our Motion for Acquittal was denied yesterday.
It seems that the verdict was only upheld because ECUA Chair Lois Benson lied under oath at least 10 times and the Judge (Joyce Williams) believed her, ignoring video that directly contradicted Benson's claims that I was asked to leave and that I made a huge scene. You should have heard her tell her fearful tales! In fact, this arrest happened because they couldn't handle someone else calmly speaking and praying BEFORE the meeting's Call to Order. This 'pre-meeting prayer' subterfuge was undertaken by Chair Benson when I alerted her to the illegal, exclusive nature of ECUA's prayer practice (in March 2015*. There's video of that BS excuse as well. Long and short, the same ruse that ECUA's attorney claimed would keep their illegal prayers "unofficial" actually created a public forum, into which I stepped. I was then illegally removed for doing the EXACT thing ECUA officials claimed the right to do - pray as private citizens! Sadly, Judge Williams could not comprehend this simple distinction. In addition, she ignored the requirements of Florida trespass law (proper warning, threat to public safety, private property) and chose to simply punish me for my legal - if insistent - protest action. At this point, it's just not worth trying reverse her ignorant decision. So I will seek a remedy civil court.
If you would like to contribute to the cost of suing ECUA in civil court for violations of my free speech in a public forum of their own creation, I welcome your continued support. The extent ECUA went to so they could pray exclusively include subterfuge by re-arranging their agenda, battery upon me when I tried to pray twice, illegally orchestrating my arrest, banning me from meetings thereafter under threat of arrest, obtaining a guilty verdict and punishment under false pretenses, and Lois Benson perjurign herself repeatedly to make it stick. I've never seen government officials acting so crookedly to keep citizens from calling out illegal behavior!
* BTW, there is a new video now - one that shows all events from the time I entered the ECUA meeting room to the time I was dragged out. I may post two hearings later. In the meantime, watch ECUA officers squirm uncomfortably (and without the least sense of irony) as I pray for them! I've also included quotes of Chair Lowest Benson's PERJUROUS testimony in court. Her words are directly contradicted by the video itself! That's in the SHOW MORE section of the most recent video on my channel: