In early December, Cornell Law School’s First Amendment Clinic negotiated the reinstatement of James McCorkle and Robert Maclean to the Police Budget Advisory Board in Geneva, New York, following their removal over the summer by the Geneva City Council after the two made statements critical of the Geneva Police Department and the City Council.
The First Amendment Clinic became involved after the City Council removed McCorkle and Maclean on a 5 to 4 vote in July. The removal came approximately one month after McCorkle sent an open letter to the City Council, which was published in The Finger Lakes Times and shared on social media, criticizing the Geneva Police Department and the City Council. The removal also came after McCorkle and Maclean both shared posts on their personal social media pages criticizing the state of policing generally and the Geneva Police Department specifically.
On December 7, 2022, the City Council approved a resolution reinstating McCorkle and Maclean on the recommendation of Geneva’s City Attorney, Emil Bove. The resolution acknowledged that the removal of the two Board members came after statements they had made as private individuals regarding the City’s police department and expressing their personal political views. The resolution temporarily expands the membership of the Police Budget Advisory Board to seven, to account for the two Board members appointed to replace McCorkle and Maclean earlier this year. McCorkle and Maclean will sit on the Board until December 31, 2023.
“This was a necessary and important outcome,” said Christina Neitzey, Stanton Fellow in the First Amendment Clinic. “Public servants—whether they are paid or volunteer—must be free to speak as citizens on issues of public importance without fear of retaliation for criticizing their government or for their political views.”
“Our reinstatement wouldn’t have happened without the pro bono support of the First Amendment Law Clinic, James McCorkle’s courage in speaking out, and the persistence of a few City Councilors. But for them, the City of Geneva would have gotten away with trampling on the right to free expression by retaliating against speech that is critical of the police,” said Robert Maclean. “I’m thinking today about all of the people who don’t have the same resources with which to fight retaliation. Dismissing us was meant to deter others from speaking out; I hope our case instead serves as a firm reminder to the Geneva City Council, the GPD, and law enforcement agencies across the country that critical scrutiny of the police is both protected by law and necessary for a functioning democracy.”
“Retaliation for speaking truth to power can never be tolerated or normalized; to critique, indeed, to call out egregious behavior by police is essential if there are to be civil and human rights, and certainly if we are ever to move beyond the carceral economy that has entrapped us,” said James McCorkle.
The First Amendment Clinic team was led by clinic students Patrick George ’24, James Pezzullo ’23, and Yifei Yang ’23, supervised by the Clinic’s Stanton Fellow Christina Neitzey and Associate Director and Associate Professor Gautam Hans.
The Cornell Law First Amendment Clinic represents journalists and citizens on a pro bono basis to advance the interests of free expression. Law students collaborate with faculty to represent clients in legal research, negotiations, and litigation.