Charles Thornton... in his own words -

Charles Thornton... in his own words

Charles L. "Cookie" Thornton wanted his three minutes.

In Kirkwood, members of the public are allotted three minutes each to comment on issues before the city council.

It's a right Charles Thornton exercised often... and often with wild enthusiasm.

Thornton's problems arose from his desire to rail against city leaders at every public comment period -- even if the matter up for discussion had no bearing on him personally.

In years past, the city had issued Thornton more than 100 citations related to his construction business -- tickets totalling upwards of $30,000 in fines. The city had never tried to collect a dime from him, but Thornton refused to let the matter die.

Council rules require comments to be germane to the issue up for discussion. For example... if the council was discussing tearing up a street to lay new sewer lines, people impacted by the project were welcome to speak their piece before the council.

Charles Thornton didn't play by that rule. His comments always focused on what he perceived as an unjust and corrupt city government that persecuted him personally.

But the city council tolerated his outlandish and epithet-laced comments... until the spring of 2006.

At meetings in May and June, 2006, Thornton's enthusiasm crossed the line of what city leaders felt was appropriate for a public hearing.

Both times, the mayor asked police to remove Thornton from the meeting.

Thornton responded with federal lawsuit claiming the city had violated his First Amendment rights.

In January, 2007, Thornton and Kirkwood city attorney John Hessel appeared before a federal judge to plead their cases... Thornton that his rights were violated, Hessel that the council has a right to maintain order in its meetings.

In the end, the judge sided with the city.

Here are excerpts from the 31 page transcript of that hearing:

Charles Thornton tells the court he was denied an opportunity to speak at Kirkwood city council meetings. Specifically, his three minutes of public comment time were interrupted when the council found his comments objectionable:

MR. THORNTON: Yes, Your Honor, I would like for this Court to allow me to speak at the City Council meetings. There is protocol of a three-minute time limit to speak, and it's an open mike, and you can say and address any issue that you would like during this three-minute time session. They have denied me this right to speak in the three minutes by stopping me from speaking after three seconds of speaking, and once after five seconds of speaking, not allowing me to get into the detail or any part of my speech which only lasts at the most three minutes.

MR. THORNTON: The three-minute public comment section is totally open for any form of communication during the allotted three-minute time. The City has interrupted and arrested me during these occasions, and I'm asking the Court to grant this temporary injunction stopping the City from violating my civil rights during these times.

MR. THORNTON: I just want this body to acknowledge my constitutional rights to speak. I don't want extra time, I want three minutes that everyone else is allowed to speak.

MR. THORNTON: ...[T}hey can still at any time stop me and violate what I believe is my constitutional rights of free speech, even if I choose to say, "Jack ass, jack ass, jack ass," for three minutes. If it's a word that is in the dictionary and in the Bible that is legally acceptable to use, I think I should be able to use it, but I guarantee you I'm not going to waste my time to say, "Jack ass" for three minutes and then go sit down and think that I got my point across.

The judge questions Thornton on a letter he wrote to the Kirkwood city attorney asking for clarification of what is considered acceptable language for a council meeting:

THE COURT: Hold on. What you've given me is a one-page sheet, and it says at the top, "Webster's Dictionary definitions," and it has some words, "ass, fool, damned, idiot, jack ass, monkey, signified, hell," and there is a definition for each one of them, and then it says, "Please read over the words and their definitions. Cross a line through the word or words from the Holy Bible and the Webster's Dictionary which you believe is not guaranteed by the Constitution, being the First Amendment right of free speech. Please sign your name and title so as no misunderstanding will be had." And then there is a note, "If you choose not to respond, this will be understood as my right to use freely these words in my presentations..."

Thornton argues the semantics of language with the court:

MR. THORNTON: I don't just say, "Mayor, you are a jack ass." What I said is, "The mayor is displaying jack ass-like qualities," which means that the quality that he is displaying is very stubborn and not listening what I have to say.

Kirkwood's city attorney describes Thornton's past behavior during city council meetings:

MR. HESSEL: I will tell you that Mr. Thornton has appeared at almost every Council meeting, I'm estimating by this, for the last ten years, probably longer. In many instances, he has been threatening, he has been rude, he has been using abusive language. He has been wasting the Council's time. For example, Your Honor, you used the question as to whether or not you could stand up there for three minutes and say, "Jack ass, jack ass." He stood up there for three minutes and said, "Because no one listens to me and you're all a bunch of jack asses, I'm going to speak in donkey-ese," and went, "hee-haw, hee-haw, hee-haw," for three minutes, as an example.

Kirkwood's city attorney describes the basis for Thornton's dispute with the city:

MR. HESSEL: Mr. Thornton decided that he was going to ignore the rules with respect to his demolition company, and he was cited and convicted for well over 100 violations in the Municipal Court and in the Circuit Court of St. Louis County. ...[H]e was fined over $30,000, and the City has made no attempt to collect that money from him. We have said, "You just go on and go about your business and do it in a meaningful manner, and we'll let it go."

Unfortunately, however, Mr. Thornton has never let it go, and he comes back at every Council meeting, and he accuses the Director of Public Works of being a liar, and accuses him of perjury, accuses others of complicity in that whole conspiracy, including myself, and people that work for me as the prosecuting attorney. He has picketed my office, picketed other offices of Council members, accusing them of racial bigotry, and he comes up at these meetings, and that's his theme, is that their is racial bigotry, and the Council has allowed him to carry on with those accusations.

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