Two married couples, James and Barbara Vanden Boogart and Jon and Lori Morehouse, represented by WILL in a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Town of Morrison in Brown County would like to report that they have reached an agreement with Town officials to settle the case. The Town and its insurance company have agreed to pay the plaintiffs $7,500 each (an amount which only partially covers their out of pocket expenses) as well as $20,000 to their attorneys in order to save the town further litigation costs. The majority of funds will come from the Town’s insurance company.
This lawsuit was filed to challenge the town’s unconstitutional sign ordinance and its selective enforcement that placed a near-blanket prohibition on signs in residential and agricultural districts, preventing residents from placing signs with political, religious, or personal messages on their own property. By enforcing that ordinance, Town officials stifled opposition to potential industrial wind turbine developments in the Town, issuing takedown notices and citations to many residents, including the plaintiffs. After working vigilantly with the Town of Morrison for over two years in an attempt to have the ordinance amended, the plaintiffs very reluctantly brought this lawsuit against former Chairman Todd Christensen, former Code Enforcer Mark Roberts, and the Town, only after Christensen’s repeated message to residents – if you don’t like it, sue us.
Although the Town had been informed by multiple credible sources that its ordinance was clearly unconstitutional, it took a lawsuit to get it to do the right thing. The Town amended its ordinance to conform with constitutional free speech requirements shortly after the lawsuit was filed. “Sometimes,” observed WILL’s President and General Counsel, Rick Esenberg, “it takes a federal lawsuit to concentrate the mind.”
The plaintiffs were willing to accept a substantially lower monetary amount if the Town would agree to publicly acknowledge its wrongdoing or apologize for the behavior of its officials. Town politicians instead chose to pay the Town attorney many more thousands of taxpayer dollars to continue with litigation, rather than admit that they violated the U.S. and Wisconsin Constitutions. These additional and unnecessary legal costs have been used to vilify the plaintiffs, shifting the blame from those responsible to the victims of their actions.
The value of this lawsuit extends far beyond ameliorating the harms the plaintiffs suffered. The most important victory in this case was re-opening Morrison to free speech. The plaintiffs were only two of the many Morrison families whose free speech rights were violated. Now, because of the hard work of WILL’s attorneys and the conviction of the Vanden Boogarts and Morehouses in leading the fight against this injustice, the constitutional rights of every Morrison resident have been restored. Residents can once again use signs to educate the public about the harmful effects of irresponsibly sited industrial wind turbines which continue to threaten residents’ health, safety, and property values. A sampling of the many signs now permitted in Morrison may be viewed here.
Similar signs have long been placed in neighboring communities, none of which chose to violate their residents’ free speech rights as Morrison did. “Other municipalities should take note,” said Associate Counsel Tom Kamenick. “Many other communities have ordinances like these, typically relics of the turbulent times of the ’60s when local governments tried to clamp down on speech disapproving of the government. Attempt to enforce them, and you risk civil rights lawsuits and substantial liability.”
“The plaintiffs’ goal has never been anything but to protect their community from being harmed by industrial wind turbines being built too close to people – harm already suffered in other Wisconsin towns, including the adjacent Town of Glenmore. Signs were a critical part of that effort, and when all such signs were banned, and all other options had failed, the plaintiffs reluctantly filed this lawsuit and only as a last resort” said plaintiff James Vanden Boogart.
The initial complaint and other case documents may be viewed here.