By Adam Tobias | Wisconsin Reporter
CAMPBELL, Wis. — Police here blocked off a street in 2011 to make it easier for union-organized demonstrators to protest outside the home of former Republican state Sen. Dan Kapanke, who lost a recall election later in the year because of his support for Gov. Scott Walker’s signature law restricting collective bargaining for government employees.
About two years later, the Campbell Town Board passed an ordinance prohibiting the display of flags, banners and other signs on or near the pedestrian bridge over Interstate 90 after local residents gathered there to participate in a national movement calling for the impeachment of President Obama.
“Campbell has a track record of stifling free speech when it suits them,” Erich Rathke, a demonstrator from nearby La Crosse, told Wisconsin Reporter.
Alleging a violation of the First Amendment, the Thomas More Law Center in Michigan has, on behalf of La Crosse residents Gregory Luce and Nicholas Newman, filed a lawsuit in federal court against Town of Campbell, Campbell Police Chief Tim Kelemen and Police Officer Nathan Casper.
Kelemen, who admitted he used to be a “really heavy Republican kind-of-guy” while being investigated by authorities in May, was able to convince board members to adopt the ordinance in October 2013 because of safety concerns with passing motorists.
Kelemen pleaded no contest last week to charges he allegedly registered Luce for solicitations from gay dating, pornography and federal health care websites.
Kelemen is the only town representative to submit an affidavit saying the overpass protesters, who wore “Impeach Obama” T-shirts and displayed American flags, were compromising the safety of motorists, according to Erin Mersino, the Thomas More Law Center attorney representing Luce and Newman.
Mersino told Wisconsin Reporter she will be filing an report in the next few weeks that proves the demonstrators do not pose a safety risk.
“It seems like the public safety argument is a pre-text … Even going down the road, seeing pictures of this highway with all of the billboards and all of the different electronic signs, it would not be any more clutter or any more distraction for a person to have a small sign or to be a wearing T-shirt that serves a certain political viewpoint,” Mersino said.
But Town Board Supervisor David Wilder defended the ordinance Tuesday, telling Wisconsin Reporter the area surrounding the overpass is now more dangerous because of nearby road and bridge construction projects.
Rathke and Campbell resident Tony Curtis said several people pleaded with board members to let the law sunset after the construction is completed, but they were told no.
Although Wilder acknowledged the ordinance isn’t “cast in stone,” he declined to say if he would be willing to consider repealing the restrictions once crews finish work on the road and bridge projects.
“It’s up to the rest of the Town Board,” Wilder said. “I mean, we’ve got a lawsuit against us right now. So, until that’s all settled, I can’t tell you what’s going to happen in the future.”
Wilder also didn’t offer any alternative locations for the Obama protesters to gather.
“I’m not suggesting anything,” Wilder said. “I’m simply addressing the safety issues for this particular area right now with the major construction.”
Campbell Clerk and Treasurer Chad Hawkins told Wisconsin Reporter that town staff has been advised by their lawyer not to comment on the situation because of the pending lawsuit.
Attempts to reach Town Attorney Brent Smith, who is out of the office until Thursday, were unsuccessful.
Because town officials are using the construction projects as justification for the overpass ordinance, Curtis said he is worried his local government might continue with that rationale in the future.
“They took a temporary safety situation and they are enacting a law to permanently silence free speech, which I think is a grave danger to our country,” Curtis said. “They can say, ‘Well, we’re having construction on the sidewalk by this abortion clinic and we’re going to pass a law to keep you from being there in the name of safety. Oh, by the way, this law is never going to go away.’ See, that’s the danger.”
Luce and Newman contend in their lawsuit the ordinance eviscerates their fundamental rights of free speech by making it unlawful to assemble on a pedestrian overpass, an area they say shares the same protections as a public sidewalk and constitutes a traditional public forum.
Luce, Newman and several other demonstrators started gathering on the pedestrian bridge in early August 2013 to share their political beliefs and participate in the national “Overpasses for Obama’s Impeachment Campaign.”
The plaintiffs and their supporters demonstrated on the pedestrian overpass because “there is no similar location that will reach the same audience or the same amount of people,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit claims the group met five times at the bridge between August 2013 and early October 2013 without any incidents or related traffic mishaps.
The lawsuit also alleges the Campbell Town Board passed the overpass ordinance on Oct. 8, 2013, in response to media attention surrounding the demonstrations.
Luce and other members of his group returned to the pedestrian bridge on Oct. 24, 2013, while wearing T-shirts calling for the impeachment of Obama, but dispersed soon after Casper asked them to leave or face fines of $132 each.
Newman was ticketed on Oct. 27, 2013, for displaying an American flag on the overpass to “express his pride for his country and the ideals upon which it was founded,” according to the lawsuit.
Four other demonstrators were cited during a December gathering at the overpass for holding flags and a cross.
“This case is about (the) right of all Americans, not just Americans who hold popular religious and political viewpoints, to exercise free speech and free association within our traditional public fora,” the lawsuit says.