After a series of stories critical of town leaders and local regulators, Cicero’s town board president, Larry Dominick, publicly criticized the Cicero Independiente’s journalists, calling them “jerks.” He then threatened to bar their reporters from speaking during public meetings, a clear violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution, experts say.
Dominick, in publicly-recorded comments at the end of a biweekly town meeting on Dec. 12, said the Independiente‘s staffers routinely don’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and, as a result, “from now on, I don’t think I’ll let anyone there talk that does not stand for the pledge.” He ended his comments by saying, “Thank you and God bless everybody — most everybody.”
In recent years, the Independiente’s consistent coverage of Cicero town board meetings has drawn attention to Dominick’s more controversial statements, including calling Dr. Anthony Fauci, the former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, an “idiot” and “probably a communist.”
The Cicero Independiente, a bilingual newsroom with three full-time staffers that was started in 2019, routinely sends its journalists to town meetings and, at times, they speak during public comment periods to ask questions or present their journalistic findings. The First Amendment allows any member of the public, including journalists, to sit during the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and a 1943 Supreme Court case, West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, ruled in a 6-to-3 decision that acts of patriotism should not be compulsory.
The Independiente began covering the town of Cicero’s board meetings in 2021 to make them accessible to residents. In 2022, “we began to record the board meetings consistently because we noticed how many comments were made that may have a harmful impact to our community,” said April Alonso, one of the Independiente’s co-founders.
“Our job is to inform residents in a town that has long operated without a lot of transparency,” said Irene Romulo, one of the newsroom’s co-founders. “Unfortunately, a lot of Cicero residents feel intimidated to speak up but we want to make sure people get involved even if their views are different from the establishment’s.”
The First Amendment also prohibits the retaliation of any public official against a member of the public or a journalist for such protected speech.
“It’s ironic that Mr. Dominick would attack journalists’ patriotism by denying them their First Amendment freedoms. What’s more unpatriotic than that?” said Seth Stern, director of advocacy for the Freedom of the Press Foundation and a Chicagoland native. “Especially after 18 years as town president, Dominick should know better.”
David Loy, legal director of the First Amendment Coalition, said public speech can’t be curtailed “simply because the mayor or anyone else doesn’t like what you have to say.”
“This does seem to be one more disturbing incident in a very frightening trend of government interaction with the press,” Loy said. “No one has to be friends and elected officials don’t have to like it but they have to respect the First Amendment.”
In a statement, the Illinois ACLU called Dominick’s comments unfortunate and “sad.”
Dominick and the Cicero town board’s spokesperson, Ray Hanania, didn’t respond to MuckRock’s request for comment.
The Independiente has long covered the inner workings of Cicero and Dominick, a 75-year-old former town police officer who has served as town board president since 2005 after his predecessor was convicted and sentenced to eight years in federal prison for helping steal $12 million from a town insurance fund.
The outlet covers every town board meeting, and regularly reports on the difficulty in fielding candidates for local office and town spending, such as $5,000 in recent upgrades to Dominick’s 2022 Chevrolet Tahoe. For the past year, the Independiente and MuckRock have chronicled the town’s poor air quality, and political leaders’ and regulators’ slow response to environmental pollution, as part of an ongoing series called “The Air We Breathe.”
Dominick has faced a series of scandals during his tenure, including allegations of nepotism; campaign finance violations and conflicts of interest; connections to a cocaine dealer and motorcycle-gang leader with mob ties; sexual harassment; wrongful termination; and even a secret recording by the FBI by a former employee in his office, in which he allegedly told the employee to lie to investigators about sexual harrassment claims.
When asked by investigators about the specifics of that conversation, Dominick, on the advice of his attorney, invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
At one point after becoming board president, Dominick testified that he had placed more than 20 members of his extended family on the town payroll, including his mother, his sister, his brother-in-law, his wife and the mother of his son’s child.
In 2011, a civil suit filed in federal court accused Dominick of firing a town employee working as a handyman after the employee’s wife’s Spanish-language newspaper ran articles critical of Dominick. A jury awarded the former town employee $650,000 in damages.
Two former female employees sued Dominick for sexual misconduct; the town paid over $1 million in out-of-court settlements. In 2013, when former Chicago official Juan Ochoa, an up-and-coming Hispanic politician, ran against Dominick, Dominick falsely accused him of using gang members in his campaign.
It was the last time a Hispanic candidate has run against Dominick.
Since being elected to be Cicero’s town board president, the community of about 85,000 residents has undergone a dramatic demographic shift, from a largely Czech immigrant population to being nearly 90% Hispanic.
When he won re-election in 2013, Dominick told WBEZ that he hoped to keep the president’s post for “the rest of my life.”