WARREN, Ohio (WJW) — A U.S. district judge has ruled a Trumbull County commissioner’s constitutional rights were violated when her colleagues had her arrested during a public meeting after she criticized the sheriff.
“When I saw the decision, it was absolutely vindicating,” Commissioner Niki Frenchko said.
The 81-page opinion was issued Tuesday by U.S. District Court Judge J. Philip Calabrese.
“Here in America, we do not arrest our political opponents,” Judge Calabrese wrote. “This case tests that longstanding norm as well as our Constitution’s robust protections for free speech that allow us to criticize our representatives and public officials. Plaintiff Niki Frenchko won election to the three-member Board of County Commissioners of Trumbull County, Ohio. She was an outsider, and the only member of County government from her political party. As a public official, she used her position to needle the incumbents and, in her view, hold them accountable for their decisions. For their part, they viewed her as ignorant of the basic workings of county government and a nuisance, to put it mildly.”
Frenchko was arrested by two sheriff’s deputies during a July 2022 commissioners meeting, after she was critical of Sheriff Paul Monroe.
The deputies told Frenchko she was disrupting the public meeting. She was removed from the meeting and handcuffed.
The charge was later dismissed. Frenchko filed the federal lawsuit last March. She is represented by attorneys David Betras and Matt Miller-Novak.
Betras said the federal judge found that former Trumbull County commissioner Frank Fuda and current commissioner Mauro Cantalamessa, the sheriff and the two deputies “willfully violated Commissioner Niki Frenchko’s rights under the First and Fourth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution when they repeatedly attempted to silence her and prevent her from representing the interests of her constituents.
“The judge also stripped them of their sovereign immunity, which means they can be held individually liable for monetary damages,” Betras told the FOX 8 I-Team.
The judge did grant some summary judgment claims made by the defense and stated some of the claims would have to go to a jury to decide.
“It has been a nightmare working with people who are out to silence you,” Frenchko said. “The people of Trumbull County elected me in 2020 because I promised to bring transparency and accountability to county government. When I kept my word, I was harassed, assaulted and ultimately arrested, but I would not be intimidated.”
She said she is pleased with the judge’s ruling.
“I said at the time that this incident was a scene out of Russia and other dictatorships where despots like Vladimir Putin and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad routinely arrest and jail their political opponents,” Betras said. “This decision sends a loud and clear message: political oppression is not acceptable in the United States.”