April 6, 2016

APS pays out $59K in free speech case

Albuquerque Public Schools will pay $59,000 to settle a lawsuit alleging it violated the first amendment rights of an Albuquerque photojournalist and long-time ethics advocate who said the APS board limited his ability to attend and photograph board meetings.

Albuquerque Public Schools

Albuquerque Public Schools

The settlement with Mark Bralley, a retired Albuquerque cop, is the second time APS has settled a free-speech lawsuit since December, when it agreed to pay $575,000 to settle a similar lawsuit bought by retired teacher Ched MacQuigg.

This piece originally appeared on the ABQ Free Press website.

Bralley’s lawsuit settled on April 1, according to court documents. An APS spokesperson said the district had no comment on the settlement.

Bralley filed the suit himself—meaning pro se—in federal court in August 2013 after what he said was a years-long attempt by APS to bar him from meetings and limit his ability to photograph board members during meetings. And he claimed that APS was trying to define who and who wasn’t a journalist, something he said government is forbidden from doing.

Bralley tried to attend an Aug. 19, 2010, debate between gubernatorial candidates Susana Martinez and Diane Denish at Eldorado High School in Albuquerque. But APS said it was an invitation-only event that could be attended only by journalists it had credentialed and approved. Bralley charged that that was a violation of the state’s Open Meetings Act, which says that almost all government meetings are open and that “all persons desiring shall be permitted to attend and listen to the deliberations and proceedings” of those meetings.

“It should have been first-come, first-serve,” Bralley told ABQ Free Press. “Instead, it was [APS spokeswoman] Monica Armenta‘s little tea party. I sued them because of the fundamental concept of two things. First, anybody in the United States today with an Internet connection has the ability to tell stories about anything, including their local government. And second, that one need not be connected with a corporate media outlet to be able to do that, and that government has made rules that are contrary to the fundamentals of the Constitution.”

Bralley and MacQuigg were both thrown out of an Aug. 25, 2010, APS Board Audit Committee meeting after disputes about where Bralley could set up his video camera and allegations that he had recorded the board when it was in executive session. At one point during the meeting, then-board member Martin Esquivel shouted, “Both of you get out of here now! Out!”

Named as defendants in the suit were Esquivel and other then-and-former board members, including Robert Lucero, Kathy Korte, Paula Maes, David Robbins and APS Superintendent Winston Brooks.

Bralley has had a long history of activism and rabble-rousing. In 1999, while still an APD officer, he became known as “The Two-Minute Criminal” for daring to talk longer than 120 second at meetings of then-Police Oversight Commission. The POC had imposed a two-minute rule for people wishing to speak at its meetings, and Bralley repeatedly violated the rule. APD initiated an Internal Affairs investigation against Bralley for his insistence on speaking longer than two minutes at POC meetings.

Asked if he would limit his activism after the settlement, Bralley laughed. “If APS decides not to play nice in this thing, I know the way to the courthouse,” Bralley said. “Now that they have given me $59,000, I can certainly afford the $400 filing fee.”

Dennis Domrzalski is news editor of ABQ Free Press. Reach him at dennis@freeabq.com.