Boxer or (court) briefs?
Court opines on the progression of Citizen Sam’s lawsuits against the city of Reno and the Airport Authority
He’s a wiry guy, a boxing lightweight. Better known for his activism at Reno City Council meetings, retired Air Force Lt. Col. Denis “Sam” Dehne, 63, spends his lunch hour on Mondays and Fridays with his gloves on, sparring at the gym with partners who outweigh him by about 100 pounds.
Now there’s a metaphor.
“I’m honing my skills in the boxing ring to use in the City Council and vice versa,” said Dehne, who’s 5-foot-10 and weighs 155 pounds.
He’s not talking about physical combat during the local-government meetings. Instead, Dehne sees himself as a “watchdog.” He sees it as his duty to attend and speak at every meeting of the Reno City Council, the Sparks City Council, the Washoe County Commission, the Reno-Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority and the Airport Authority of Washoe County.
He’s often critical, frequently abrasive, leans toward egotistical. He calls himself the “Encyclopedia of Reno Government.” He likes active verbs. So in two instances where he felt wrongly deprived of his right to express himself, he doesn’t just complain that local agencies failed to respect his constitutional rights. He says: “They mutilated and stomped all over the U.S. Constitution!”
Woe to those who try to shut him up. Dehne sued both the city of Reno and the Airport Authority after two separate instances in which he was kicked out of meetings, including one where he was arrested and hauled out of an Airport Authority meeting—or, as the never-before arrested former Air Force pilot would say, “Kidnapped!”
U.S. District Judge Howard McKibben threw the cases out. Disrupting a public meeting is against local ordinances and Nevada statutes. Dehne was rightly kicked out of meetings for “disruptive, loud and obstreperous conduct,” McKibben said in his ruling.
Two weeks ago, though, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Dehne’s lawsuits could proceed and be heard by a jury instead of a judge, or in Dehne’s words: “In essence, [they said], ‘Put these !@#$@# government bureaucrats on trial and then spank them hard.’ “
Dehne won’t say how much money he’s seeking in damages.
“My lawyer told me not to tell you,” he said.
Dehne the great
On Friday, about a week after the appeals court decision, Dehne met me by Dreamer’s on the Riverwalk downtown.
He scowled at my lone notebook.
“Where’s your list of questions?” he asked.
“It’s all right here,” I answered, tapping my head.
“Thought so,” he said. “Thought Deidre will probably come to meet me and ask me a bunch of stuff off the top of her head. So here’s a list of questions for you.”
He handed me a typed sheet. The first question: “Briefly, what is your ‘clown’ lawsuit all about?”
This was a first for me.
I glanced at his questions as he mentioned a few not included, like: “Who’s the greatest person in Reno?”
This was out of control.
“So, Sam,” I began. “Briefly, what is your clown lawsuit all about?”
The clown suit
June, 1999. Reno City Council. An airport issue was on the agenda.
Background: The Nevada Ethics Commission had ordered Mayor Jeff Griffin to abstain from voting on Reno-Tahoe International Airport matters in 1997, when he owned Nevada Foreign Trade Services and Griffin Transport. In 2001, Griffin sold the companies. Critics complained repeatedly that Griffin had used his position as an elected official to influence airport policy in ways that advanced his businesses.
Citizen Dehne’s role as activist began with airport issues. He’s flown for both the Air Force and for Pan Am, and he’s done plenty of homework. Dehne always has something to say when an airport issue comes up. No love is lost between Griffin and Dehne, either. During a Nevada Ethics Commission meeting earlier in June that same year, Griffin had complained that, in a one-year period, Dehne had launched personal verbal attacks about 300 times. Dehne had filed five complaints against Griffin with the attorney general for violations of Nevada’s open-meetings law.
Griffin was sick of Dehne—tired of what the former mayor described as abuse of a public official.
When Dehne would take the podium for the allotted minutes of public-comment time, in addition to weighing in on another three or four agenda items as the meeting progressed, Griffin’s face would often turn a dark shade of red.
End of background.
At the June 1999 meeting, Dehne filled out a public-comment card to speak when the airport item came up.
Mayor Griffin looked at the card.
“I have a request to speak from Mr. Dehne,” he said. “It is my opinion not to let him speak. What do you guys think?”
This was an outrage to Dehne, a blatant affront to the open-meetings law.
“I politely went over to the city attorney,” Dehne said, “and told her that the Nevada Ethics Commission, just 10 days ago, had told the mayor to stay away from airport issues.”
The mayor said he wanted to stop the meeting.
“No, I have a right to speak!” Dehne said, talking in what he called “a parade-ground voice.”
“Somebody get that clown out of here,” Griffin ordered.
“I always leave,” he said.
But it seemed clear that he’d been denied his constitutional rights.
“First Amendment—Congress shall make no laws abridging the freedom of speech or the right of the people to petition the government for redress …” he cited, along with a 1964 Supreme Court decision: “As Americans, we have the profound national commitment to the principal that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”
The city argued that Griffin had a right to order Dehne out of the council chambers, as he was disrupting the meeting. That’s a misdemeanor offense, said Creighton Skau, deputy Reno city attorney. Skau came to Reno about two and a half years ago. He wasn’t around in 1999 when these events transpired.
“There really isn’t much to say,” Skau said of the Dehne lawsuit. “The court found [Dehne was] being disruptive. That’s the end of the hunt, the end of the story. That was the reason for his being removed.”
The airport suit
Here’s a question that’s not on Dehne’s list: Did he, in September 2000, really spit on a piece of paper that detailed the Airport Authority’s new policy for public comment? And isn’t that kind of, well … disruptive?
“The fact is I just made it sort of look like I was spitting on the form as I tore it up at the podium,” Dehne told me. “I didn’t really ‘hock a loogy’ on it. I can be plainly seen on the video saying ‘Pitooee.’ … What do you consider to be disruptive about that? It was my piece of paper.”
Dehne said he tore the paper up and pantomimed spitting on it because he was disgusted at the “new airport Nazi-istic doctrine” that said the chairman [then Richard Hill] could “pick and choose at his discretion who he wanted to let speak at the meeting.”
Dehne expressed himself thus during public-comment time. Then he sat down. Later, the chairman overheard a remark that Dehne said he “whispered” to a neighbor. Hill said he heard Dehne say the word “spit” and accused him of speaking out of turn.
Dehne responded by calling Hill a “liar.”
Hill called the airport police, and Dehne was, in his own words, “manhandled and ignominiously hauled off to jail.”
Dehne is suing for “past and future general and special damages, including emotional distress, mental anguish, physical pain and suffering, future fear of arrest and incarceration, chilling of … free speech, loss of enjoyment of life, violation of the aforementioned constitutional rights, adverse publicity, exclusion from a public meeting and prior restraint of Plaintiff’s right to speak further, attorney’s fees, court costs, inconvenience, embarrassment, humiliation, grief, harm to reputation, all in sums to be proved at trial.”
Airport spokesman Adam Mayberry was confident that the Airport Authority was in the right. Officials must be able to keep order at meetings.
“Look, anyone has the right and is welcome, including Mr. Dehne, to come down to our meetings,” Mayberry said. “They’re public meetings held in a public forum. Having said that, nobody—including Mr. Dehne—has a right to be disruptive at our meetings. That particular meeting that he was thrown out, he was disrupting the meeting.”
The recent court decision has little value as far as setting a legal precedent, Mayberry said.
“All it says is that a jury, not a judge, has to decide this case,” he said.
So, it’s back to the ring for another round of hearings in front of a jury.
Dehne said he wasn’t sure when the hearings would be scheduled.
“I hope as soon as possible—while it’s still fresh on nobody’s mind,” Dehne said, chuckling at his clever turn of phrase.
He also hopes the hearings won’t take place during a meeting of the Reno City Council or Airport Authority. Dehne hasn’t missed a meeting of either since about 1995—he didn’t make it to the August hearings in San Francisco so that he wouldn’t miss a minute of watch-dogging at the Airport Authority.
It’s part of his ethic as a citizen activist, as a boxer for the people.
“Boxing is the most heroic sport there is,” Dehne contended. “In any other sport—basketball, baseball—you can bail out, ask the coach to take you out. Once you get in that ring, though, you can’t get out. You get pounded until you go down.” <