TAMPA — A social justice activist, escorted out of a transportation town hall meeting in 2017, has settled her First Amendment lawsuit against Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White.
The settlement included a $25,000 payment to activist Dayna Lazarus, said Liana Lopez, the county’s chief communications administrator.
Lazarus still plans to present her testimony to the full county commission, her attorney Luke Lirot said Wednesday. Lirot said he also wants to address commissioners “to let them know what I feel all public officials should be sensitive to regarding the First Amendment.”
Their planned presentations, however, are not part of the settlement announced Monday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida. A press release from the ACLU incorrectly stated planned commentary from Lazarus was part of the settlement, as was Lirot-provided First Amendment training for commissioners.
Wednesday, Lirot said he was at fault for failing to correct the information before the ACLU released the statement publicly.
Lazarus became a full-time Hillsborough County community planner in August, focusing on non-discrimination and equity aspects of transportation and planning issues, according to her LinkedIn profile. She received a master’s degree from the University of South Florida in city/urban, community and regional planning in 2019.
As a community activist, she went to a “South County Transportation Town Hall” attended by White and then-Commissioner Sandy Murman on June 26, 2017. She was removed from the meeting after being told her comments about road planning and racial justice were off-topic.
“Ms. Lazarus’ First Amendment rights never should have been violated,” Lirot said in a statement released by the ACLU. “This case, and others like it, serve as an important reminder to governmental officials that they are constitutionally obligated to listen to differing viewpoints, even those viewpoints inconsistent with their own personal philosophies.”
Lazarus planned to read a statement opposing the state Department of Transportation’s Tampa Bay Express project, a proposal that originally called for adding toll lanes to 90 miles of interstates. Critics, including Lazarus, said the plan would destroy Black and Hispanic neighborhoods.
Her lawsuit, filed in April in U.S. District Court, said White interrupted Lazarus as she began to speak, telling her she was off-topic for a meeting about transportation. She said that she was speaking about transportation and continued her presentation until White interrupted her again and the crowd began to jeer her, the lawsuit said.
“It is clear that the audience does not wish to engage in the dialogue,” White is quoted in the lawsuit as saying. “You are about to be escorted out.”
Two security guards walked Lazarus out of the hearing room at Lennard High School in Ruskin and off the campus.
White’s conduct amounted to a restriction on free speech based on the content of Lazarus’ comments rather than any attempt to ensure an orderly meeting, the lawsuit said.
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“The lawsuit was handled through a standard, board-approved process,” White said via text message Tuesday afternoon during a break in day-long commission meetings.
The state later scrapped its original Tampa Bay Express plan in the face of widespread public opposition and broke it into smaller, individual proposals. Part of it, widening Interstate 275 and rebuilding the interchange with Interstate 4, called Tampa Bay Next, remains controversial. Some Tampa residents advocate an alternative of providing more transit options and eventually replacing I-275 with a Boulevard of Tampa grid system.
Correction: A settlement between activist Dayna Lazarus and Hillsborough County provided a $25,000 payment to Lazarus but did not require county commissioners to allow her to present testimony nor require the board to undergo First Amendment training. An earlier version of this story was incorrect on these details because of incorrect information provided by the ACLU.