Wisconsin Spotlight | Aug. 18, 2020
MADISON —A lawsuit filed in federal court aims to test the First Amendment rights of businesses during a pandemic.
Helbachs Coffee Roasters + Kitchen in Middleton is suing Dane County and its power-grabbing health department in a complaint that has been moved to federal court.
Public Health Madison & Dane County is threatening to take away the coffee shop’s food and drink license after owners put a sign on its door declaring, “Mask Free Zone.” A photo of the sign on Facebook went viral. The sign, however, was only up for about a half hour, according to the lawsuit.
The local health csar and her faithful subjects didn’t care for a sign they felt so openly defies the county’s stringent mask mandate. Health officials also have issued citations to Helbachs at $263.50 a pop.
Local news outlets have reported the lawsuit is about Helbachs resisting the mask mandate. Brent Eisberner, the local attorney representing the business, said those reports are inaccurate.
“This is more a case about free speech than it is challenging the mask order,” he told Empower Wisconsin last week on the Vicki McKenna Show.
Eisberner noted allegations that coffee shop employees or the owners required people to remove their masks upon entry. He said those accusations are “patently false” and that health officials have found no evidence to back up the complaints.
“In my mind what this boils down to is a business owner made a political statement that they disagreed with the current order from a government agency. That political statement went viral on social media, which then led to enforcement actions,” the attorney said, adding that the question is, can government silence speech, even amid a pandemic.
As the health department has turned more punitive, liberal County Executive Joe Parisi called Helbachs opposition to the mask mandate “life and death stuff.”
“These orders are in place for a reason,” he told News 3 last month. “Helbachs was cited, and, if they continue to violate, they will continue to face sanctions, additional sanctions from Public Health.”
Last month, Casey Helbach set up a “Freedom Fund” on GoFundMe. He said donations will go to set up a legal defense fund for Helbachs and other business owners “to fight for freedom and the unlawful orders” from the health department.
“Helbachs believes that this order is unlawful and should be opposed in court. We are not against the public’s safety but rather against Madison & Dane County Public Health infringing on our constitutional rights,” according to the GoFundMe page.
Helbachs faces three citations from the health department. A hearing is scheduled for Sept. 10 in Dane County Court. The business intends to fight the citations.
Eisberner said a win in federal court will only strengthen protections for business owners and individuals to feel more comfortable in making political statements without fear of retribution from the government.