Montana Municipal Insurer Pays $500K to Settle Free Speech Claim

October 11, 2011

The city of Great Falls, Montana, has reached a $500,000 settlement with a Vaughn woman who filed a lawsuit after being escorted out of a 2007 City Commission meeting for exceeding a three-minute comment limit.

District Judge Katherine Irigoin of Sidney ruled in July that the city violated Susan Overfield’s right to free assembly, government participation and free speech.

City officials told the Great Falls Tribune that the settlement decision was made by the city’s insurance company, the Montana Municipal Interlocal Authority.

“The legal team balanced the costs of very expensive litigation against the city of Great Falls’ strong disagreement with the allegations made by the plaintiff,” the city said in a statement.

The city said its insurance company deemed the settlement the “most prudent approach in this case.”

Despite Irigoin’s ruling and the settlement, the city still defends its practice of setting limits on public comment during meetings.

“We try to keep people to the point so that everybody has a chance to speak,” Mayor Michael Winters said. “What we look for is civility within a concise period of time so what we don’t have one or two people dominating the meeting.”

Overfield could not be reached for comment.

The case stems from a City Commission meeting where Overfield, a dog trainer, spoke for more than three minutes while criticizing the city’s plan to take over the animal shelter.

She was removed from the meeting by a man who did not identify himself as a police officer. Overfield allegedly punched the man below the belt as he grabbed her and tried to remove her and was found guilty of assault and disorderly conduct in March 2008.

A district judge overturned the verdict a year later, saying Overfield did not disturb the peace and that she had a right to defend herself because she did not know the man removing her from the meeting was a police officer.

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