TAMPA — A woman escorted from a public hearing after raising questions of racial bias in a toll road project has filed suit against the man who ordered her removed: Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White.
The lawsuit was filed April 17 by Dayna Lazarus, a local activist whose causes have involved transportation and racial justice, in Hillsborough Circuit Court.
The lawsuit arises from a hearing June 26, 2017, where 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.
White interrupted Lazarus as she began to speak, telling her she was off-topic for a meeting about transportation, the lawsuit said. She replied 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, telling her there is a “time and a place to say things” and this was not it, the lawsuit said. The hearing was billed as a South County Transportation Town Hall.
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.
The local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida took up Lazarus’ cause, sending an email to White’s assistant that included the text of White’s comments and a request that he call her to acknowledge he was wrong, the lawsuit said.
Instead, the Hillsborough County Attorney’s Office placed a call to an ACLU representative to defend White’s actions, the lawsuit said.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Lazarus by a Miami attorney with the ACLU Foundation of Florida and by Luke Lirot, a Clearwater lawyer who made a name for himself as a First Amendment crusader representing clients such as adult entertainment businesses.
White on Thursday declined to comment on the lawsuit. The Republican was first elected to the commission in 2014.
Lazarus has been featured in news coverage of several protests and events in recent years, including climate change rallies, a Tampa appearance by President Donald Trump, hearings on decriminalizing marijuana, and debate over moving a Confederate monument from the old Hillsborough County Courthouse.
At a climate change event last May, she said she was an urban and regional planning master’s student at the University of South Florida.
The lawsuit includes a copy of the comments Lazarus planned to make about the state’s Tampa Bay Express project at the June 2017 hearing. “Inequality, whether it be of race, income levels, or access, is built into the land, and perpetuated by the way cities are planned and the symbols within them,” one passage reads.
The state scrapped its original Tampa Bay Express plan in the face of widespread public opposition and broke it into smaller, individual proposals.
The lawsuit seeks a declaration that White, acting in his capacity as a government official, violated Lazarus’s First Amendment rights to free speech. The suit also seeks damages and attorney’s fees.
Times staff writer Anastasia Dawson contributed to this report.