A Wisconsin Town Targeted a Couple’s Political Yard Sign. Now, They’re Suing.
January 31, 2023 | Tags: Civil Liberties, First Amendment, free speech, REASON
A small town in Wisconsin is facing a federal lawsuit after city officials demanded that a local couple, Timothy and Megan Florek, take down their yard sign opposing the rezoning of the property on which a local middle school is situated. The city claimed the Floreks were violating a local ordinance that places a 30-day limit on "temporary" or "portable" signs. Despite legal pushback, the city doubled down, insisting that the ordinance did not violate the First Amendment. On Monday, they were sued in federal court.
"It's not entirely difficult to change an ordinance, but it's something that needs to be done to protect everybody's First Amendment rights," Dan Lennington*, deputy counsel for the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), the group suing the town, told WBAY. "Everybody should have an expectation that they can put a sign in their yard and speak on a certain topic."
The dispute began earlier this month, after the town of Neenah, Wisconsin, ordered the Floreks to take down a small yard sign on their property. According to the lawsuit, the sign, which measures 18 by 24 inches, expressed opposition to a local effort to rezone a closing middle school, allowing a developer to build housing on the property. "Don't Rezone Shattuck Middle School," the sign reads. "Leave R-1 Alone."
According to the lawsuit, the city issued a notice of violation, saying a local ordinance dictates that "temporary signs" can only be displayed for 30 days in a 90-day period. The notice also told the couple that "'if there is a re-zoning request filed again with the city,' Plaintiffs' sign would then be permitted to be displayed as a 'political sign' because the issue would be 'pending,'" reads the suit.
After receiving the notice, the Floreks sent a legal response letter on January 19, arguing that the ordinance violated the couple's First Amendment rights, and requesting that the city withdraw their notice. Instead, the city sent an amended notice, which the lawsuit claims is "substantially the same as the initial Notice of Violation," except the city removed the portion explaining how the sign would be permitted if it were deemed political.
The couple is now suing, represented by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL). The complaint, filed Monday, argues that the ordinance violates the Floreks' First Amendment rights by targeting their sign's content. "Defendants have targeted the Floreks' sign pursuant to a content-based review of the sign's message and have demanded that the sign come down immediately based upon its message," reads the complaint. "By Defendants' own admission, they would not even have sent the initial 'Notice of Violation' if the sign contained a different message on a different issue."
"The enforcement action was taken irrespective of the message of the signs," one lawyer for the city said, according to WBAY. "Municipalities may lawfully regulate signs in regards to time, manner, place, etc., so long as those regulations are content-neutral." WILL and the Floreks argue the ordinance isn't content-neutral or reasonable, as it regulates signs differently based on whether they are deemed "temporary," "political," or in another category.
"The city's sign ordinance is unconstitutional, and we as a community have every right to express our ideas—even through a simple yard sign," Tim Florek said in a Monday press release. "If we are not permitted to speak on a matter of public concern, then we simply lose the privilege of a government accountable to the people they were elected to serve."
"Time after time again, it's egregious to see the government violate these indisputable First Amendment rights," WILL Deputy Counsel, Lucas Vebber added. "WILL promises to hold such bad actors accountable, no matter what."
*CORRECTION: This post has been updated to correct Dan Lennington's name.
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