Citizens Sue City of Neenah for Violating First Amendment Rights

City ordinance tramples on residents’ protected right to express opinion on yard sign

The News: The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Neenah today on behalf of Tim and Megan Florek, challenging the constitutionality of the city’s sign ordinance. The city sent letters to residents, citing its ordinance and demanding citizens to remove signs opposing local re-zoning efforts, or be penalized; thus, stifling their right to First Amendment-protected speech. WILL recently sent a letter to the City of Neenah demanding that they stop this infringement, but the city did not comply.

The lawsuit alleges that the city violated the residents’ First Amendment rights. The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin in Green Bay.

The Quotes: WILL Deputy Counsel, Lucas Vebber, stated, “Time after time again, it’s egregious to see the government violate these indisputable First Amendment rights. WILL promises to hold such bad actors accountable, no matter what.”

WILL Associate Counsel, Cara Tolliver, stated, “The right to free speech is a fundamental right afforded to every citizen of the United States. WILL is proud of its record defending the First Amendment and proudly stands with Tim and Megan Florek – two individuals who are entitled to have their voices heard.”

“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.  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,” said WILL Client, Tim Florek.

Background: The Neenah School District plans to sell a soon-to-be vacant school building to a developer. However, before the plan can move forward, the City of Neenah must re-zone the property. This important issue has caused a considerable amount of public debate between the city’s residents.

The City of Neenah sent a number of “Notice of Violation” letters to residents, in efforts to shut down public debate and order citizens to remove signs that oppose the re-zoning by early February. The Floreks received this letter from the city, accusing them of violating the City’s sign ordinance. The penalty for non-compliance is a fine of up to $500 for the first offense, and up to $1,000 for each subsequent offense. Each day the sign is displayed is considered a separate offense. WILL sent a demand letter on January 17th of this year, alerting the City of Neenah about its First Amendment violation. WILL demanded that the city withdraw the Notice of Violation and provide assurances that the ordinance would not be enforced within five days of receiving the letter, but the city did not comply.

The Clients: Tim and Megan Florek are among the residents in Neenah who oppose any attempts to re-zone the property. To express their opposition to the re-zoning effort, they have displayed a yard sign which reads “Don’t Rezone Shattuck Middle School Leave R-1 Alone.” Hundreds of similar yard signs are displayed in the city.

The Lawsuit: The lawsuit urges the court to enter a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction, prohibiting the City of Neenah from enforcing its unlawful sign ordinance. The lawsuit argues that the city cannot suppress or threaten its citizens’ First Amendment rights, and asks the court to award attorneys’ fees.

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Lucas Vebber

Lucas Vebber

Deputy Counsel

Cara Tolliver

Cara Tolliver

Associate Counsel

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