Midstate woman loses appeal of Jackson Twp. meeting ban

Written by Daniel Walmer/Lebanon Daily News | Jan 17, 2017 11:41 AM

Ann Gruber of Jackson Township(Photo: File)

(Lebanon) -- A panel of the Pennsylvania Superior Court has rejected Ann Gruber's appeal of a sentence that forbids her from attending Jackson Township meetings.

Gruber challenged both her February 2016 sentencing and her December 2015 convictions on charges of disorderly conduct, defiant trespass and disrupting a public meeting.

In 2014 and 2015, she was a frequent meeting attendee and a harsh critic of the township supervisors. But a jury found her conduct went beyond mere disagreement after hearing evidence that she refused to follow orders from the supervisors regarding conduct at meetings.

Despite First Amendment free speech claims by Gruber, Lebanon County Judge Bradford H. Charles included as a condition of probation that she not attend Jackson Township meetings during her 18-month probation. She is permitted to submit letters, and Charles directed the township's solicitor to read the letters during public meetings.

In an opinion filed on Jan. 13, 2017, the three-judge Superior Court panel dismissed Gruber's claims that there was insufficient evidence to convict her. A separate challenge to the sentence imposed by Charles based on freedom of speech concerns was rejected on technical grounds.

Even if the Superior Court were to rule on the merits of Gruber's free speech claims, she would not win the case, Senior Judge Correale F. Stevens wrote for the three-judge panel.

"(T)he trial court felt it needed to both protect the citizens of Jackson Township by ensuring their elected representatives would be able to perform their duties and to facilitate Appellant's rehabilitation 'by removing her from the environment where she consistently caused problems,'" Stevens wrote.

By permitting Gruber to submit letters to be read at meetings, the "creative" conditions of her sentencing avoid a complete curtailment of her First Amendment rights, he wrote.

Concerns about Gruber's conduct stemmed from several meetings, but two in particular led to the criminal charges. In January 2015, the Jackson Township supervisors ended a meeting early after Gruber refused to stop loudly talking despite instructions to stop by Chairman Tom Houtz, making it impossible for the supervisors to conduct business. At an August 2015 meeting, she attempted to force her way into the supervisors' office after being instructed not to do so, according to trial testimony from Township Solicitor Paul Bametzreider.

There were township residents at her sentencing who criticized Gruber's conduct, but others defended her, expressing concern about how she was treated by Houtz.

Gruber could appeal the Superior Court's decision to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

This story is part of a partnership between WITF and the Lebanon Daily News.

Published in Lebanon, News

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