Case Name: Vanden Boogart v. Christensen

Type of Case: First Amendment

Court: U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Wisconsin

Case #: 2012-CV-491

Filed on: May 17, 2012

Current status: Favorable Settlement for Plaintiffs; Ordinance amended

The Town of Morrison, near Green Bay, is a big target for industrial wind turbine developers.  Some people there don’t want the turbines, others do, and people on both sides have engaged in campaigns to convince their neighbors to make a stand.

Unfortunately, the Town government itself has taken sides in this debate by strictly enforcing a sign ordinance against anti-wind signs while permitting pro-wind signs.  The ordinance bans nearly all signs on residential and agricultural property with a few exceptions, such as real estate signs and agricultural product signs.

The federal lawsuit alleges that the ordinance is unconstitutional because it violates free speech.  The plaintiffs, two couples, have repeatedly put up signs with anti-wind, religious, and personal messages only to have the Town issue takedown demands and citations.  Their arguments rely on a 1994 Supreme Court case that struck down a very similar city ordinance in Missouri.  The complaint also names the town chairman and code enforcer, who wrote the takedown notices and issued the citations, as individual defendants.

In response to the lawsuit, the Town quickly passed a new ordinance explicitly allowing any "noncommercial" sign to be placed without a permit.  Many months later, the Town finally agreed to settle the case $50,000.  The Plaintiffs had been willing to settle for a substantially lower if the Town had been willing to admit that it violated the plaintiffs' constitutional rights or apologize for what they did to their residents, but the Town refused, preferring instead to spend more taxpayer money not only on the settlement, but on paying the town attorney for months of work.