PITTSBURGH - The ACLU of Pennsylvania has filed an appeal to Superior Court on behalf of Bridgeville resident Marshall Pappert, who was found guilty of harassment after he complained to the Bridgeville borough manager about the noise and pollution caused by a concrete manufacturing plant across the street from his home.
At a July 16, 2008 hearing, Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge Robert Gallo found that Pappert should have known that the borough manager did not have the authority to act on Pappert's complaints and instead should have contacted his elected officials. Pappert was never told he was communicating with the wrong person. According to the borough's Web site, the borough manager "take[s] care of the day-to-day operations, implement[s] policy decisions and coordinate[s] activities of other Borough departments."
"It is unconscionable that municipalities might be permitted to use threat of criminal prosecution to intimidate and silence community activists," said ACLU cooperating attorney Bruce Boni, who defended Pappert at the hearing. "We are confident that the rights of all Pennsylvanians to speak to their government officials will be fully vindicated on appeal."
Bridgeville police charged Pappert with harassment after he left a message on the borough manager's office answering machine in which he accused her of failing to investigate alleged environmental violations by the concrete plant and asked her to resign. He was cited under the subsection of the statute that prohibits "engaging in a course of conduct that serves no legitimate purpose."
Before being charged, Pappert, who had been appointed by his neighbors as the spokesperson for the street, had written to numerous agencies asking for help in alleviating the plant's air pollution and noise. His repeated letters to the Allegheny County Department of Health eventually resulted in inspections and two citations to the company for air pollution violations.
"Pappert had a First Amendment right to complain about the borough's failure to investigate alleged violations by the concrete plant to anyone he wanted - regardless of their authority to take action," said Sara Rose, ACLU of Pennsylvania staff attorney. "The court's decision will have the dangerous and unconstitutional effect of deterring other residents of Allegheny County from holding their public officials accountable."
In addition to upholding Pappert's summary conviction and ordering him to pay a fine of $300 plus court costs, Judge Gallo told Pappert that he would sentence him to jail if he had any contact with Bridgeville Borough Manager Lori Collins in the next 90 days.
"To have the police and borough do this to a concerned citizen is outrageous," Pappert said. "All I wanted was for our borough to enforce the ordinances that we had on our books and I contacted the borough manager, Lori Collins, to do this."
More information, including a copy of the judge's order, can be found at: www.aclupa.org/pappert