by Eric Christianson
Luce v. Town of Campbell
(Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. September 22, 2017)
Interstate 90 runs through the town of Campbell, Wisconsin where it is crossed by two streets and a pedestrian overpass.
Gregory Luce and Nicholas Newman, two members of the local Tea Party, chose to use the pedestrian overpass to promote their views. With their group, they held American flags along with banners and signs messages such as “HONK TO IMPEACH OBAMA.” This led the Town’s legislature to enact an ordinance forbidding all signs, flags, and banners (other than traffic-control information) on any of the three overpasses, or within 100 feet of the end of these structures.
Complicating this case is the fact that the local police chief, Tim Kelemen, and the Tea Party protesters escalated the conflict. The members of the Tea Party group posted videos and messages online. One video showed police removing a protestor for unfurling an American flag.
The police chief responded by posting the name and email address of one of the protestors on same-sex dating and pornography websites. Kelemen also posted comments on the local newspaper’s website accusing that protestor of failing to pay his property taxes and other debts and asserting that his car was about to be repossessed. When this behavior was revealed, Kelemen resigned his post as police chief and was prosecuted for “unlawful use of a computerized communication system.”
In this case the plaintiffs considered the actions of the police chief to have been retaliation by the city for their speech. However the court found that Kelemen’s vigilante actions were private in nature:
The court concluded that Kelemen was not engaged in state action when “messing with” Luce and that the First Amendment therefore did not apply (for it deals only with governmental conduct). Acting as a vigilante is not part of a police officer’s job. Kelemen did some of the dirty work while on duty and used an office computer for some posts. But he did not use official information or privileged access to information. All of the facts he gathered and disclosed about Luce, such as his physical and email addresses, were available to the general public. Anyone else could have done exactly what Kelemen did.
While Kelemen’s actions were not “state action” the court does say that his actions undermine his credibility as a witness stating the dangers presented by signage on the overpass. While one photograph of a car, which had stopped to take a picture, was shared at trial, without Kelemen’s testimony there was no other evidence to prove this law advances a “significant governmental interest.”
However, the court asserts that case law shows that reasonable, content-neutral, time, place, and manner restrictions on speech have not required empirical evidence to pass constitutional muster. As long as the legislatures assertions are reasonable, “the Court “hesitate[s] to disagree with the accumulated, common-sense judgments of local lawmakers.” Novel signs do attract more attention than fixed billboards. The City Council does not need a specific double-blind study to support that fact in this case.
A regulation of the sort the Town has adopted rests on a belief that overhead signs and banners will cause at least some drivers to slow down in order to read what the banners say, and perhaps to react to them (say, by blowing the car’s horn in response to “HONK TO IMPEACH OBAMA”). Stopping to take a picture is just an extreme version of slowing down. Reading an overhead banner requires some of each driver’s attention, and diverting attention—whether to banners or to cell phones and texting—increases the risk of accidents. This effect is well established for cell phones and texting and is the basis for legislation by many jurisdictions, uncontested in court as far as we are aware, though talking and texting are speech.
It does not take a double-blind empirical study, or a linear regression analysis, to know that the presence of overhead signs and banners is bound to cause some drivers to slow down in order to read the sign before passing it. When one car slows suddenly, another may hit it unless the drivers of the following cars are alert—and, alas, not all drivers are alert all the time
The court did remand a portion of the law which bans all signage within 100 feet of the overpasses including those which would not be visible to drivers on the interstate.