PITTSBURGH - A Bridgeville Borough resident's complaints to a local official about noise and pollution caused by a concrete manufacturing plant near his home are protected by the state constitution, according to a Superior Court ruling. The court overturned Marshall Pappert's 2008 harassment conviction for leaving multiple messages on the Bridgeville Borough manager's office answering machine in which he criticized her for failing to investigate alleged environmental violations by the plant.
"The court's ruling makes clear that government employees cannot silence citizens who are critical of how they carry out their official duties by charging them with a crime," said Bruce Boni, an ACLU cooperating attorney representing Pappert.
Bridgeville police charged Pappert with harassment in October 2007 after he left a message on Borough Manager Lori Collins's office answering machine accusing her of failing to investigate alleged environmental violations by Silhol, the concrete plant, and asking her to resign. The Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas convicted Pappert of harassment in July 2008, and Pappert appealed to the Superior Court.
In overturning the Common Pleas Court's decision, the Superior Court said that "Pappert's letters and voicemail messages were made in an effort to get the government's help in remedying the problems being caused by Silhol" and were therefore "an exercise by Pappert of his 'inviolate' right to petition the government."
Pappert, who had been told by the Common Pleas judge that he would be sentenced to jail if he contacted Collins, expressed satisfaction that the Superior Court recognized that citizens have the right to contact their public officials.
"I'm ecstatic that the court has vindicated me in my efforts to persuade our local government to intervene in an ongoing threat to public safety," Pappert said. "I'm saddened at the extreme lengths the borough went to in protecting a polluter by attempting to silence me."
Pappert was represented by Boni and ACLU-PA staff attorney Sara Rose.
The case is Commonwealth v. Pappert (Pa. Superior Ct.). More information about the case, including the Superior Court's decision, can be found at: cases/commonwealth-v-pappert