Man barred from speaking at Wilmington public meeting asks judge to drop criminal charges

Esteban Parra
The News Journal

A man arrested after disrupting a Wilmington City Council meeting last month is asking a judge to dismiss the charges after the state Justice Department ruled that the City Council violated Delaware law when it barred him from speaking at the public meeting.

Wilmington attorney David L. Finger, who represents the man, said the criminal charges should be dismissed because the grounds used to arrest Dion Wilson violate the First Amendment.

"The arrest is an example of government overreach," Finger said. "The crimes which he is charged with, harassment and disorderly conduct, are not meant to encompass this type of political protest." 

Other states' courts have found similar statutes unconstitutional, Finger said. "It's time for Delaware to do so as well."

OUT OF LINE: Arresting Wilmington man for speaking out went too far, First Amendment experts say

Wilson was arrested at his Midtown Brandywine home about two weeks after he and Wilmington Council President Hanifa Shabazz argued during a Sept. 19 City Council meeting over whether he was allowed to speak during the public comments period. 

Wilmington resident Dion Wilson speaks during a City Council meeting in 2018.

Wilson frequently attends City Council meetings and often criticizes Shabazz, Mayor Mike Purzycki and other council members during public comments. He speaks about the dismantling of the Rodney Square bus hub and the way city and state officials treat the poor in Wilmington.

Shabazz then pressed for the criminal charges, both of which are misdemeanors. While she could not be immediately reached for comment on Monday, in a statement last week, Shabazz told Delaware Online/The News Journal that as the presiding City Council officer it is her responsibility to maintain order at legislative business meetings. 

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"On September 19, 2019, a citizen was not allowed to speak during public comment because of the profanity they used during the previous public comment session," she said in her statement. 

Wilmington City Council President Hanifa Shabazz in the City Council chambers in 2018.

But barring Wilson from speaking at that meeting was found to violate state law, the Delaware Department of Justice ruled last Thursday.

While the city has the ability to remove a person if their behavior is "willfully and seriously disruptive" of the public comment portion of its meeting, the record did not support the city's pre-emptive decision to bar Wilson from speaking at the Sept. 19 meeting, the state justice department ruled. 

AG RULING: Wilmington City Council violated law when it prohibited man from speaking at public meeting

Prosecutors must still decide whether to pursue the charges before Wilson is arraigned in December.

"As stated previously, we will make a prosecution decision as the case progresses," said Carl Kanefsky, a spokesman for the Department of Justice. 

Contact Esteban Parra at (302) 324-2299, eparra@delawareonline.com or Twitter @eparra3.