Police Questioning of Resident Raises Free Speech Debate : Thousand Oaks: Councilwoman Lazar to ask officer why woman was quizzed after Councilwoman Zeanah complained.
Saying she fears residents’ rights to free speech are at risk, Thousand Oaks Councilwoman Judy Lazar intends to ask a top Sheriff’s Department officer tonight why a politically active Thousand Oaks resident was questioned about comments she made during a public hearing.
Lazar said she wants Cmdr. Kathy Kemp, who acts as Thousand Oaks’ police chief, to explain why deputies quizzed resident Susan Falwell about her statements at an emotionally charged council meeting Jan. 3.
Falwell was questioned after Councilwoman Elois Zeanah complained that she considered the woman’s comments a threat. But Lazar said she is worried that residents will be discouraged from speaking out because of what happened to Falwell.
“My concern is that in not using some reasonable common sense that council members will stifle, or have a chilling effect on, the public’s ability to come down and talk to us,” Lazar said Monday. “The implication is that those who disagree will be investigated.”
At the Jan. 3 meeting, Falwell told council members they should set a precedent for how to fill council vacancies since “accidents do occur.” One seat on the five-member council is vacant because Frank Schillo was elected to the Ventura County Board of Supervisors in November.
Falwell, who vehemently opposed a special election supported by Zeanah, was questioned by the sheriff’s executive protection unit after Zeanah complained.
Since then, Falwell has refused to speak with deputies, hired an attorney and demanded a public apology from Zeanah, saying her good name has been damaged and her rights to free speech violated.
Zeanah said she has no intention of apologizing because she was within her rights in contacting the unit.
“Once we become elected officials we give up a lot of our rights as citizens, including our right to privacy,” Zeanah said. “One right we do not lose is our right to call police for advice if we are concerned about our personal safety. That is not a special privilege, that is the right of all citizens.”
Likewise, former Councilwoman Madge Schaefer said she is concerned that the public tongue-lashing Lazar gave Zeanah at last week’s meeting for complaining about Falwell--including suggesting she was being paranoid--will make public officials afraid to ask for help from the special protection unit.
“Everybody has to determine what their own comfort level is, and for one person to suggest what that should be to another is ridiculous,” Schaefer said. “I don’t think that is being very respectful of other people. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut.”
While Schaefer served on the Thousand Oaks City Council, she said she received death threats and warnings that her children might be harmed. In 1981, sheriff’s officials recommended she wear a bulletproof vest to a touchy public hearing on growth control, Schaefer said.
“You just don’t know who is out there anymore,” she said.
Having reviewed the Falwell case, Cmdr. Kemp said she believes the woman intended no threat by her comment, and that the remark may have seemed blunt because Falwell was trying to wrap up her thoughts quickly as her designated five minutes to speak ran out.
Kemp said that Falwell will not have a police record because of the incident and that she was never under formal investigation. She said she does not remember receiving any requests for protection from the council during her 18 months as commander.
But Kemp said she will sometimes investigate members of the public who seem particularly agitated at public hearings.
“I have initiated a few things where I have done checks on a few people,” Kemp said. “And no one was found to be dangerous.”
Kemp said all council members are welcome to use the executive protection unit, which also offers protection to judges, county supervisors and visiting dignitaries.
“I don’t have a problem with a council person calling and saying, ‘I’m concerned about my safety,’ which is basically what occurred,” Kemp said.
Lazar said she does not question Zeanah’s right to call in deputies. But she said Zeanah’s interpretation of Falwell’s remarks was faulty.
During tense negotiations over Circuit City on Lynn Road two years ago, Lazar said she found herself at the center of an ugly and angry debate.
“There was one man who said we’re going to get rid of you,” Lazar said. “I could have taken that to mean that they were going to physically knock us off. Had I done that I venture to say the individual in question would have doubted my reasonableness.”