A few months ago, the town of Campbell, Wis. decided to pass an ordinance that would specifically ban the display of signs from a pedestrian bridge within its border. The new law would affect Tea Party activists who had held anti-Obama signs from the location prior to the decision – though it did not address other forms of expression.
A short time after approving the ordinance, the city fined four protesters for standing on the bridge while holding flags and a cross. Another group was reportedly threatened with a citation while displaying an anti-Obama message by spelling out a message with letters on their T-shirts.
While the city claims to be on solid legal footing, citing a prior court ruling that resulted in an anti-gay sign being removed from an overpass in Madison, lawyers in this case are prepared with their own argument.
“We aren’t out on a limb,” said town attorney Brent Smith, “and we didn’t just manufacture this. We did look at that ordinance and we did look at that court decision before we went forward.”
Attorney Bernardo Cueto, however, said the court decision focused only on law enforcement action, not a municipal ordinance.
“There’s billboards everywhere,” he said, refuting the town’s claim that the signs are a distraction. “The whole purpose of a billboard is to distract drivers.”
Even more disturbing, however, is the fact that this ordinance specifically targets a group based on their political ideology, according to Thomas More Law Center’s Erin Mersino.
“Viewpoint discrimination is one of the most harmful threats to our freedom of speech,” she said. “The answer to contempt of a certain viewpoint is not to silence that viewpoint, but to invite more speech and create discourse.”
Of course, Smith denies there is a political component to the ordinance, suggesting the law was passed out of “concern over the public safety.”
Those wishing to use their power to silence others will always find some legal cover they claim allows them to do so. In the end, however, it does not really matter whether the town acted as it did based on partisan motives or a skewed interpretation of the law. The activists targeted were forced to take down their signs and vacate, effectively stripping them of their constitutional right to peacefully express dissent.
–B. Christopher Agee
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Photo credit: Stop Obama Now – San Diego (Roger Ogden)