- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 23, 2015

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - A western Wisconsin town can ban signs on an interstate overpass, a federal judge ruled in rejecting tea party claims that the prohibition sparked by the group’s demonstrations was unconstitutional.

Two La Crosse tea party members, Greg Luce and Nicholas Newman, had sued in 2014, alleging that the ordinance violated their free speech rights. U.S. District Judge William Conley ruled on June 16 that the ordinance is a reasonable restriction on free speech, online court records show.

Conley wrote that the prohibition is content-neutral, it’s narrowly tailored to further the government’s interest in traffic safety, and demonstrators have many other ways to reach people, including going door-to-door, using the telephone, speaking at public meetings and displaying signs in public parks and near other roadways.

Erin Mersino, one of Luce and Newman’s attorneys, said she planned to appeal the ruling. She disputed that signs on the overpass create any danger for drivers below.

“The court really trampled the First Amendment,” she said. “What this ordinance did was forbid free speech on the public sidewalk.”

The overpass spans Interstate 90 in the Town of Campbell, a burg of about 4,000 people on the Mississippi River just outside of La Crosse. Town officials enacted the sign prohibition in fall 2013 after a series of protests on the bridge that were part of the tea party’s national push that summer to impeach President Barack Obama.

Tim Kelemen, then Campbell’s chief of police, pushed for the ban, telling town leaders he was worried the protesters and their signs were distracting interstate drivers and could cause crashes.

Luce and Kelemen have been quarrelling ever since.

Kelemen said tea party supporters flooded Campbell’s five-officer department with complaints and threats. He told investigators that Luce had urged tea partiers across the country to harass his officers.

As payback, Kelemen said, he signed Luce up for gay dating, pornographic and the federal health care websites. He was charged last year with one misdemeanor count of unlawful use of a computerized communication system. He pleaded no contest in a deal that calls for the charge to be dismissed in two years if he doesn’t commit any new crimes. He resigned as police chief in November.

Luce had amended the free speech lawsuit to demand damages from Kelemen for stealing his identity and using his official powers to retaliate against him.

Conley reprimanded Kelemen in his ruling, saying his conduct “falls woefully short of the minimum professionalism and detachment one should reasonably expect of a police officer, much less a chief of police.” But he warned that it appears Luce doesn’t have a case against Kelemen since the former chief didn’t use his official police powers to retaliate against him.

The judge gave both sides until Friday to submit additional briefs on the issue.

Kelemen’s attorney, Jim Birnbaum, said Conley should have focused more on how the tea party harrassed Kelemen’s officers. He said Kelemen acted out of frustration.

“I think Chief Kelemen has, as they say, manned up and accepted responsibility for what he knew was inappropriate actions,” Birnbaum said. “Chief Kelemen has reflected himself that this was not his finest hour.”

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