Arrest of critic is 'baseless' attack on free speech in small Alabama town, lawyer says

The lawyer for a woman arrested after a dispute at a city council meeting in a small town north of Birmingham called her prosecution a "baseless" overreaction and an attack on her First Amendment right to criticize the mayor.

Police in Tarrant arrested Novillee Williams on misdemeanor charges of harassment and disorderly conduct on Dec. 5, the day after she and the city accountant exchanged words at the council meeting. Williams pushed away the accountant's arm and told her to "turn around honey," according to a video of the meeting.

"Ms. Williams is 79 years old and is, and always has been, vocal in Tarrant politics," said Birmingham attorney Tommy Spina. "She has never been arrested before until now, for what appears to be the exercise of her First Amendment right of free speech. Her touching of the young lady bore no semblance of an intention to harass, annoy or alarm anyone, she was merely speaking her mind."

He called on the city to drop the charges.

"I would also ask the city attorney for the city of Tarrant to investigate this matter and advise the city of Tarrant of any potential civil liability it may have as a result of this baseless warrant," Spina said.

At the council meeting, Williams spoke from her seat in the audience, assailing Mayor Wayman Newton as a corrupt leader in the town of 6,000 people. Williams is a regular at city hall and a vocal critic of Newton.

Veronica Freeman, a member of the Tarrant City Council, said she believes Williams' arrest was an intimidation tactic and attempt to bully those who disagree with the mayor's administration.

"By her being attacked the way she was, that will make citizens not come and publicly voice their opinions due to the fact of repercussions," Freeman told AL.com. "That would also make employees afraid to say anything that would jeopardize their jobs. So if something is going wrong, they are not going to say anything."

Newton maintains that he had nothing to do with Williams' arrest.

"A city employee took out a warrant against Ms. Williams following an incident that occurred the previous night at a city council meeting. Ms. Williams and the city employee were treated how all victims and suspects are treated in similar cases," he told AL.com.

Shayla Myricks, the city accountant, pressed charges against Williams, according to the police report. Myricks did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

During the council meeting on Dec. 4, Williams blasted Newton in her comments about the ongoing legal battle between the mayor and Wendell Major, the town's police chief whom Newton suspended last month.

"I believe the mayor is being corrupt," Williams told the council. "I believe the mayor needs to be charged for something. Something's got to be done with this man."

Sitting in front of Williams in the audience, Myricks turned around toward her to speak in defense of the mayor.

"Turn around honey," Williams shot back.

In a statement posted to social media, the Tarrant police department defended their actions in arresting Williams. The statement accused Williams of "shoving" a citizen and "engaging in intimidating behavior."

"Although citizens are rightfully permitted to utilize their First Amendment rights in a public forum, threatening behavior and unwelcomed physical contact should not be tolerated to ensure an already confrontational forum remains orderly," according to the statement.

Major, the police chief who has been suspended by the mayor, told AL.com that he "emphatically" disagrees with the statement posted to the department's Facebook page. He said he did not direct personnel to post it.

"I don't believe it to be true and I don't believe it to be an accurate statement of the law," Major said.

Williams' attorney quipped that he was surprised at how hard the city is working to justify the arrest of an elderly woman.

"Sounds like - 'hit dog barks,'" he said.

Spina told AL.com that he found errors in the police report. Both Spina and Major said that Williams turned herself in, rather than having officers show up at her home with warrants as is written in the report.

Spina also noted that before the confrontation between Williams and Myricks, the city accountant moved from a seat across the room to the one in front of Williams.

"The council chambers were essentially empty, nevertheless, this young lady apparently moved from one chair to a different chair directly in front of Ms. Williams while she spoke," Spina said. "Ms. Williams has previously expressed her dissatisfaction about how the mayor has conducted himself in the past."

Councilwoman Freeman said that political discord is just part of doing business in Tarrant, where the mayor and city council spar during council meetings and in court over issues ranging from the budget to who gets to work for the town.

"I've been called everything but a child of God and I have yet to sue anybody or get them arrested," Freeman said. "So what's good for the goose is good for the gander."

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