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A political speech victory

By M.D. Kittle

Wisconsin Spotlight | Oct. 28, 2022

MADISON — Facing the threat of a lawsuit, the Town of New Chester has repealed its ban on distributing political materials on public grounds.

The small Adams County community had adopted an ordinance following the 2020 elections aimed at barring the distribution of “political materials” on pubic property. New Chester officials defined “political materials” as “signs, handbills, flyers, and any other printed materials that supports or opposes a candidate for partisan office or it supports or opposes a ballot measure.” Violators faced a $1,000 fine.

“No person may distribute or post political materials on town property owned, occupied, or controlled by the town,” the ordinance stated.

Resident Steve Blake had previously distributed political materials on public land in the township. He feared doing it following passage of the ordinance would land him in trouble, so he retained the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty to represent him.

In June, WILL sent a demand letter to the Town of New Chester regarding the ordinance, and made clear it was an unconstitutional exercise of the Town’s authority, and blatantly restricted Blake’s ability to engage in First Amendment protected expression. The Milwaukee-based civil rights law firm demanded the town immediately take steps to repeal the ordinance, and to confirm to Blake it would not be enforced against him in the interim.

After reviewing WILL’s letter, the Town Board agreed not to enforce the ordinance, and just last week repealed it.

“I am pleased that the Town repealed this ridiculous ordinance, and that myself and others are once again able to freely exercise our constitutional rights without fear of government reprisal,” Blake said. “I am grateful that WILL was around to help me defend my rights.”

The law firm in its letter to the town noted the U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that “handing out leaflets in the advocacy of a politically controversial viewpoint—is the essence of First Amendment expression.” New Chester’s ordinance was a “flagrant violation of Mr. Blake’s Free Speech rights as guaranteed by the First Amendment.”

“The right to distribute political materials on public land in this country has been recognized since time immemorial,” said Lucas Vebber, WILL deputy legal counsel.

“Our state and federal constitutions guarantee our rights to distribute these messages to others, and ensure that Government entities cannot simply ban speech they disagree with.”

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