Free Speech Sees Victory in Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty Lawsuit

MacIver News Service | May 1, 2013

[Madison, Wisc…] After months of battling the Town of Morrison in court over an unconstitutional sign ordinance, two married couples reached an agreement with the town signaling a victory for free speech rights.

In August of 2011, the couples, James and Barbara Vanden Boogart and Jon and Lori Morehouse, were ordered to remove signs in their yards related to a proposed wind energy project. The signs opposed the project, and all residents displaying those signs were ordered to remove them.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), who represented the couples in the lawsuit, said in a release, “this lawsuit was filed to challenge the town’s unconstitutional sign ordinance and its selective enforcement.”

While enforcing the ordinance against residents opposing the project, the Town refused to enforce the ordinance against at least one resident with a sign in favor of the proposed project and allowed other signs that violated the ordinance to remain.

Morrison’s ordinance had prohibited all signs on residential and agricultural property with few exceptions. The couples had worked for over a year to amend the ordinance before filing the suit, but the Town’s ordinance remained intact.

The ordinance did not include an exception for signs demonstrating political speech which is protected by the First Amendment, and despite hearing multiple credible sources tell them the ordinance was unconstitutional, the Town refused to amend it.

Seeing no other options, the two couples filed a lawsuit challenging the ordinance. Three months after the case was filed, the town amended the ordinance, which led the couples’ General Counsel and President of WILL, Rick Esenberg to comment, “Sometimes it takes a federal lawsuit to concentrate the mind.”

After the ordinance was changed in August of 2012, the Town reached an agreement with the couples to compensate them for the violations of their First Amendment rights.

The Town will pay them $7,500 each and will pay out an additional $20,000 to their attorneys to avoid more litigation costs. Before the settlement, the couples had indicated they would be willing to accept a lower amount if the Town would publicly acknowledge their misconduct or if the town would agree to apologize for the conduct of its officials.

Instead of apologizing, the Town chose to continue fighting against the couples and to continue litigation that cost local taxpayers thousands in legal fees.