Court: Ohioans Have Right to Criticize the Performance of Public Officials

Maple Heights Mayor sued to silence local bloggers for “defamation” and “emotional distress,” and violated their right to free speech in doing so

bloggercolorColumbus, OH – An Ohio Court late Friday dismissed the case of a Cleveland-area Mayor who sued a local family for “an amount in excess of $25,000” after they questioned his job performance on their blog.

The 1851 Center for Constitutional Law’s victory on behalf of Bill and Lynde Brownlee, husband and wife, and their small-town news website, Maple Heights News, reaffirms the principle that citizens’ criticisms of their government officials cannot be silenced when those officials file lawsuits for “defamation” and “intentional infliction of emotional distress,” as Mayor Jeff Lansky had attempted here.

The ruling should provide considerable help to both mainstream news outlets and alternative politically-minded journalists and organizations.

The Brownlees had written a short web article in the summer of 2014 questioning whether the Mayor had kept all of his campaign promises, and further questioning his tax and spending policies. The article strictly addressed the Mayor’s policies, and did not use insulting or harsh language.

In a 27-page Judgment Entry affirming that Ohio public officials cannot prevail in lawsuits merely in response to political speech, Judge Jose Villanueva of the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas held as follows:

  • “Public discussion of public officials is a fundamental principle of the American form of government, and thus a primary purpose of the First Amendment is to encourage self-government by permitting comment and criticism of those charged with its leadership.”
  • “Expressions of opinion are generally protected under Section 11, Article I of the Ohio Constitution as a valid exercise of freedom of the press [and] an alleged defamatory statement is not actionable if the statement constitutes political opinion speech protected by absolute immunity.
  • The statements were obviously opinion because “the Article is labeled ‘editorial’ and appeared in the ‘editorial’ section of a Website created for the avowed purpose of giving voice to the residents of Maple Heights. . . labeling a statement as ‘editorial’ puts readers on notice that the statements constitute the writer’s opinions.”
  • “A reasonable reader would arguably understand the Article as an opinion piece critiquing events in the city during the Mayor’s current term . . . This type of statement is not actionable in defamation.”
  • As to the Mayor’s “emotional distress” claim, “the defendants’ conduct in writing and publishing an Article constituting political commentary does not rise to the level of conduct necessary to prove [that claim].

The Court further explained that Ohioans are free to share their own conclusions about whether a particular official is ultimately responsible for certain bad outcomes, irrespective of whether that conclusion is technically correct: “It is not unreasonable to attribute actions or events that occur during a Mayor’s administration directly to the Mayor, despite the fact that others were also involved in carrying out the actions or events . . . and the Brownlees reasonably believed that the events and actions discussed in the Article could be attributed to Mayor Lansky. . . Merely because Mayor Lansky disagrees with their interpretation of the facts does not amount to actual malice.”

“When voicing their concerns over elected officials’ performance, Ohioans should not be bullied into silence for fear of an expensive lawsuit,” explained Maurice Thompson, Executive Director of the 1851 Center. “The right to criticize an elected official’s poor performance is, as a necessary first step to those officials’ removal from office, the highest, best, and most constitutionally-protected form of free speech. It should be encouraged, rather than suppressed.”

To emphasize the need to deter such lawsuits in the future, the 1851 Center’s defense of the Brownlees includes a counterclaim to declare Mayor Lansky a “vexatious litigator,” and seeks sanctions against both the Mayor and his lawyer, Brent English, who was recently arrested for frivolous litigation elsewhere. The Court indicated that separate hearings would now be held on those matters.

One prominent undercurrent to the case concerns whether political comments on citizen websites are entitled to the same level of protection as mainstream newspaper, television, and radio media. The Court stressed that under the Ohio Constitution, which is more protective of free speech, “internet” speech is almost always likely to be viewed as “opinion,” and therefore immune from lawsuits for defamation and emotional distress. The Ohio Constitution guarantees “[e]very citizen may freely speak, write, and publish his sentiments on all subjects,” and “no law shall be passed to restrain or abridge the liberty of speech, or of the press.”

Read the Court’s Order HERE

Read the 1851 Center’s Motion to Dismiss HERE

Ohio School District Forced to Return $5.5 Million in Illegal Taxes to Taxpayers

Indian Hill Board of Education raised taxes without a vote, refused to refund money

school bus picking up kidsCincinnati, OH – After a five-plus year legal battle concluded with an Ohio Court denying all of its objections, the Indian Hill Exempted Village School District Board of Education late yesterday finally conceded that it must return the $5.5 million that it illegally assessed taxpayers after raising taxes without a public vote in 2010.

The 1851 Center for Constitutional Law’s victory on behalf of a certified class of all school district property taxpayers comes nearly one year after the 1851 Center prevailed in striking down the tax increase before the Ohio Supreme Court. After the Court’s unanimous December 2014 decision, the school district still refused to return the funds, requiring the Center to file a class action lawsuit in January of 2015.

In affirming that Ohio taxpayers maintain a constitutional right to recover unlawfully-imposed taxes, Judge Martin of the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas denied the Board’s Motion for Summary Judgment, rejecting the Board’s position that it was not required to return any of the funds, or that in the alternative, it was required to return $2 million at most.

Indian Hill School District property taxpayers can expect a refund check by March 1, 2016. Amounts are expected to be approximately $1,000 for the average taxpayer, and much greater for many others.

“The outcome of this case reflects the principles that property taxes cannot be increased without a vote by citizens, unlawfully-collected taxes must be returned to those taxpayers from whom they were taken, and government must pay interest to taxpayers when it has kept their funds for many years, as here,” said Maurice Thompson, Executive Director of the 1851 Center for Constitutional Law.

“These results should dissuade other school districts from attempting to unlawfully raise taxes. Nevertheless, Ohioans should have a hard look at their school board members, who, absent scrutiny, could quite literally be getting away with theft, as would have otherwise happened here.”

Due to the class-action status of the case, the Court of Common Pleas will hold several hearings over the coming months to finalize the case, including addressing the administrative complexities of issuing pro rata refunds not just to current homeowners in the district, but to those that owned homes during the period of illegal taxation.

Rather than settling the matter in January, the Board diverted nearly $200,000 from funds earmarked for the education of school district children to pay attorneys fees of $400 per hour. Unable to find Cincinnati law firms willing to defend its practices, the Board opted to hire a firm consisting of Washington D.C. lobbyists and Cleveland lawyers.

The Board and its lawyers argued that it was entitled to keep the taxpayers’ money because each and every taxpayer did not file an individual protest letter with each and every property tax payment, and further argued that perhaps it could have legally raised taxes, albeit to a lesser extent, in the absence of the unlawful tax increase that it chose.

The 1851 Center countered by explaining that state and federal Due Process Clauses have been held to require the return of unlawfully-charged taxes. The Court took little time in flatly rejecting the firm’s arguments and siding with the 1851 Center.

“Judge Martin should be commended for scrutinizing and seeing through the Board’s outlandish arguments rather than just reflexively siding with government – – the Court deserves credit for doing justice for Ohio taxpayers,” added Thompson.

Read more about the underlying Ohio Supreme Court Case HERE

Read the 1851 Center’s Class-Action Filings HERE

Ohio Court: Cities Cannot Immediately Seize Private Property When Not For Roads

Court’s ruling places important limits on “quick-take” eminent domain power

Columbus, OH – An Ohio Court ruled late yesterday that the City of Perrysburg’s attempt to immediately seize the land of eleven local homeowners exceeds its power, given the Ohio Constitution’s protection of private property rights.

The 1851 Center’s victory curtails the abuse of a practice known as “quick-take,” where governments claim to immediately own private property upon the filing of a Complaint, before any hearing or trial. While the Ohio Constitution sanctions this immense power for “making or repairing of roads,” local governments have increasingly sought to use quick-take for many other purposes.

In striking down the City’s attempt to use quick-take here, Judge Woessner of the Wood County Probate Court concurred that the practice cannot be expanded beyond roads, holding as follows:

  • “[T]he proposed appropriations are for . . . ‘other municipal purposes,’ as well as references to ‘installing pedestrian walkways and sidewalks’ as well as ‘for providing for public utilities.’ This Court finds that if the legislature intended for ‘quick-take’ procedures to extend to other areas, those other areas would have accordingly been referenced somewhere . . . They are not.”
  • “The Court further finds that expanding ‘quick take’ immediate possession of private property . . . beyond the clearly stated purpose of ‘making or repairing roads’ is not appropriate as a matter of law in appropriation/eminent domain cases. . .”

“The Court’s ruling is a victory for private property rights across Ohio,” explained Maurice Thompson, Executive Director of the 1851 Center. “Governments have increasingly been using quick-take for anything and everything, rather than just for roads, intimidating Ohioans and stripping them of their right to mount any legal objection in court. This ruling helps ensure that meritorious arguments against eminent domain will now be heard – – and that in turn means that many more eminent domain abuses will be stopped.”

The City had sought to immediately seize property for sidewalks, a bike path, and what it cryptically referred to as “other municipal purposes.” Ohio cities may still acquire property for such purposes; however the Court’s ruling clarifies that they must attempt to negotiate and agree with homeowners, rather than exercising force as a first option.

Read the Homeowners’ Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings HERE

Read the Court’s Order HERE

Federal Court: Cities’ Rental Licensing and Inspection Requirements Unconstitutional

Fourth Amendment secures property rights of landlords from unlawful searches and occupational licensing regulations in Ohio and nationwide

forrentColumbus, OH – The Southern District of Ohio today ruled that the City of Portsmouth’s occupational licensing requirements imposed upon landlords – – rental property inspections and licensing fees – – violates the Fourth Amendment to the United State Constitution.

The 1851 Center for Constitutional Law’s victory on behalf of Portsmouth rental property owners Ron Baker, Nancy Ross, Thomas Howard, and Darren Oliver means that indiscriminate and warrantless government inspections of rental properties are unconstitutional nationwide, and that unlawfully-extracted “rental inspection fees” must be returned to the rental property owners who paid them.

These property owners had long rented their property in Portsmouth without license or inspections, and their properties had never been the subject of complaint by tenants, neighbors, or others. However, the City threatened to criminally prosecute and even imprison these landlords if they continued to rent their homes without first submitting to an unconstitutional warrantless search of the entire interior and exterior of these homes.

Judge Susan Dlott, of the Western Division of the Southern District of Ohio, held as follows:

  • “[T]he Court finds that the Portsmouth [Rental Dwelling Code] violates the Fourth Amendment insofar as it authorizes warrantless administrative inspections. It is undisputed that the [Rental Dwelling Code] affords no warrant procedure or other mechanism for precompliance review . . . the owners and/or tenants of rental properties in Portsmouth are thus faced with the choice of consenting to the warrantless inspection or facing criminal charges, a result the Supreme Court has expressly disavowed under the Fourth Amendment.”
  • “The inspections are also significantly intrusive. As the Supreme Court has noted, the ‘physical entry of the home is the chief evil against which the wording of the Fourth Amendment is directed.’”
  • “The search inspection sheet details eighty items to be inspected throughout the entirety of the rental property. The Court thus concludes that the intrusion is significant.”
  • “Taking into account the above factors—the significant expectation of privacy, the substantial intrusion into the home, and the inefficacy of the warrantless inspections on the proffered special need—the Court finds the warrantless inspections are unreasonable.”
  • “Having determined that the Code is not saved by special needs or the closely regulated industry exceptions, the Court concludes that the Code’s failure to include a warrant provision violates the Fourth Amendment.”

Both the United States and Ohio Supreme Court have invalidated warrantless inspections of rental property, and repeatedly held that warrantless administrative inspections of business property are generally invalid, absent exigent circumstances.

Nevertheless, Ohio cities had vigorously sought to collect licensing fees from area landlords, and the warrantless searches served as the lynchpin to each of these goals. Ordinances such as Portsmouth’s Rental Dwelling Code established an absolute prohibition on renting out property within a community – – even though the landlord may have long done so and even though his or her property may be in pristine condition – – without a government-approved license that cannot be acquired without first paying a $100 annual fee per rental home and submitting to an open-ended warrantless search of every area of the property, inside and out.

“The Federal Court’s ruling yesterday is a victory for all property owners and tenants. Local government agents do not have unlimited authority to force entry into Ohioans’ homes or businesses. To the contrary ‘houses’ are one of the types of property specifically mentioned by the Fourth Amendment; and Ohioans have a moral and constitutional right to exclude others, even government agents, from their property. Entry requires either a warrant or an emergency, and neither is present with respect to these suspicion-less rental inspections,” said Maurice Thompson, Executive Director of the 1851 Center.

“Government inspections of one’s home frequently results in arbitrary orders to make thousands of dollars worth of untenable improvements to even the most well-maintained properties. These enactments were nothing more than a set of back-door tactics to collect revenue on the backs of Ohio property owners, while attempting to chase ‘the wrong type of owners’ out of town.”

Read the Federal Court’s Order HERE
 

October 4, 2015: Columbus Dispatch: Rental inspections ruled unconstitutional

October 2, 2015: WDTN-TV 2: Federal judge rules Ohio city’s warrantless rental property inspections are unconstitutional

October 1, 2015: Portsmouth Daily Times: The original Portsmouth licensing fee declared unconstitutional

Victory for Parental Rights: State Agrees to End Stand-Off with Amish Family over Forced Health Care

Official who had sought to take family’s daughter from home and force chemotherapy on her, despite parent’s earnest objections and Health Care Freedom Amendment, resigns as guardian

Family will continue to pursue alternative treatment

amishColumbus, OH – The 1851 Center for Constitutional Law today accepted the Resignation as Limited Guardian of a state official attempting to, on behalf of the State and Akron Children’s Hospital, force chemotherapy on ten-year-old Sarah Hershberger.

While the resignation still requires the signature of Probate Judge Kevin Dunn, Judge Dunn is expected to approve the resignation sometime next week, effectively ending the two-month stand-off with Sarah’s parents, Andy and Anna Hershberger, who, concerned that the chemotherapy was killing their daughter, sought the right to first try a less invasive alternative treatment that the hospital did not provide.

Andy and Anna, after the Court’s order, left the country to pursue an alternative treatment and prevent Sarah from being taken from them. The family reports that Sarah has responded well to the alternative treatment, the cancer is receding, and she is in excellent physical condition.

“We made it clear to our opponents that they were in for a protracted battle over fundamental principles and constitutional rights; and that on each, they were on the wrong side,” said Maurice Thompson, Executive Director of the 1851 Center.

“The Judge’s approval of this Resignation will pave the way for the family’s return home, which will allow Sarah to receive the family’s preferred treatment under the best possible conditions,” continued Thompson. “We hope that this Resignation also seals one of the darkest moments for parental rights and health care freedom in the State’s history: a court ordering a little girl to be ripped away from her loving and competent parents, and forced to submit to procedures that could kill or sterilize her, simply because her parents sought to first pursue a less invasive treatment option – – one the hospital disagreed with because it did not itself provide it.”

On November 19, the 1851 Center announced its representation of the Hershbergers, maintaining:

  • Section 21, Article I of the Ohio Constitution, the Ohio Healthcare Freedom Amendment passed by 67 percent of Ohio voters in 2011 prohibits the compulsion of any person “to participate in a health care system.”
  • Even before Section 21, the Ohio Supreme Court held that the Ohio Constitution ensures “personal security, bodily integrity, and autonomy,” and therefore “[t]he right to refuse medical treatment” is amongst the “rights inherent in every individual.”
  • The U.S Supreme Court has repeatedly confirmed the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution clearly provides protection to parents in the “care, custody, and control” of their children, including the right “to direct the upbringing . . . of children under their control.”
  • The U.S. Supreme Court has also ruled that the “primary role of the parents in the upbringing of their children is now established beyond debate as an enduring American tradition,” and “[t]he statist notion that governmental power should supersede parental authority in all cases because some parents abuse and neglect children is repugnant to American tradition.”

The litigation began when the Hershbergers removed their daughter from Akron Children’s Hospital in July, in favor of a less invasive alternative treatment, after it appeared as though chemotherapy itself was a greater threat to her than her mild form of cancer. The Hospital then moved in court to take Sarah from the Hershbergers and force treatment in July.

The hospital’s move came only after county social services officials found the Hershbergers to be quality parents, and, and despite hospital demands, refused to take Sarah from the family. The Medina County probate court found that the Hershbergers were model parents, explaining “there is no evidence the parents are unfit or unstable,” and “there is not a scintilla of evidence showing the parents are unfit.”

However, the Appellate Court used an obscure Ohio statute intended to address child abuse and neglect to order Sara to be taken from the home and forced to undergo chemotherapy.

The Court made this ruling even though Sarah’s mild form of cancer is a type that can and is being treated without chemotherapy, and despite conceding that chemotherapy may well cause loss of hair, infections, infertility, cardiovascular disease, damage to internal organs, an increased risk of contracting other cancers, and even death.

The case remains pending on a jurisdictional motion before the Ohio Supreme Court and on appeal to the Ninth District; however those appeals are likely to be mooted by the Judge’s approval of the Resignation.

 


October 12, 2015: Medical Daily: Amish Family Wins Chemotherapy Case; Daughter No Longer Forced To Receive Leukemia Treatment

October 9, 2015: Business Insider: Court battle over Amish girl’s cancer treatment ends

October 2, 2015: Medina Gazette: Attorney: Amish girl who fled country to avoid chemo is cancer-free

March 11, 2014: Reason.com: Amish vs. the Courts: Family Speaks Out on Fleeing the U.S. to Save Daughter from Court-Mandated Chemo [VIDEO]

February 14, 2014: Medina Gazette: Judge accepts guardian’s resignation in Amish medical case

February 8, 2014: 6 ABC Action News: Ohio parents fight law over girl’s forced chemo

January 21, 2014: ABC News via Associated Press: Amish Family: Forced Chemo Order Violates Rights

January 21, 2014: Medina Gazette: Attorney: Court had no authority to force Amish girl’s cancer treatments

December 27, 2013: Daily Mail: Court was wrong to appoint guardian to force Amish girl to have chemotherapy, family says

December 26, 2013: Washington Post via Associated Press: Ohio Amish argue against guardian in chemo case

December 6, 2013: Reason.com: Amish Girl in Ohio Won’t Be Forced to Have Chemotherapy

December 3, 2013: Natural News Radio: Joni Abbott hosts with guests Donna Navarro and Hershberger family attorney Maurice Thompson

November 29, 2013: New York Daily News: Amish girl in hiding to avoid Ohio court’s ruling on her cancer treatment options

November 28, 2013: Good Morning America: Amish Girl With Leukemia, Family Flees US to Avoid Chemotherapy

Federal Court: SB 47 Restrictions on Petition Circulation Unconstitutional

Key features of Senate Bill 47 “reform” violate First Amendment speech and associational rights of Ohioans, restrict free trade

iandrColumbus, OH – A federal court late yesterday enjoined the state from enforcing Senate Bill 47’s new limits on Ohioans’ Initiative and Referendum rights. Specifically, the Court held that Ohio’s new ban on Ohioans contracting with non-Ohioans to circulate initiative petitions violates Ohioans’ First Amendment Rights.

The ruling, made by Judge Watson of the Columbus division of the Southern District of Ohio, paves the way for Ohioans advancing the Workplace Freedom Amendment and other freedom-oriented ballot issues to resume association and contracts with professional out-of-state signature gatherers.

The legal action was filed on behalf of Ohioans for Workplace Freedom and Cincinnati for Pension Reform. OWF is currently gathering signatures to place a right-to-work amendment before voters; and CPR incurred significant additional last-minute costs attempting to utilize only in-state petitioners.

In his 27 page decision, Judge Watson, explained that “petition circulation – whether for candidates or issues – constitutes core political speech protected by the First Amendment,” and “laws prohibiting nonresidents from acting as petition circulators significantly burden political speech because they substantially reduce the number of petition circulators and are therefore subject to strict scrutiny.”

The Order concluded as follows: “The Court holds that Plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits of their claim that R.C. 3503.06(C)(1)(a) violates the First Amendment because it substantially burdens core political speech and is not narrowly tailored to serve Ohio’s compelling interest in curbing fraud in the election process.”

The lawsuit sought to restore Ohioans freedom to contract or associate with any and all American citizens to convey their message and advance their issue to the ballot. The lawsuit further seeks to invalidate the prohibition, applicable only to those associated with the issue, on gathering signatures during certain critical periods.

“We’re grateful for the Court’s thorough ruling. This Act is a set of back-door tactics to effectively eliminate initiative and referendum in Ohio, by eliminating many of those who do the actual work of gathering signatures on important issues” said Maurice Thompson, Executive Director of the 1851 Center.

“Initiative and referendum supply an important check on arbitrary government, and also supply citizens with the opportunity to act as civic adults – – taking the lawmaking power into their own hands rather than begging the legislature for change.”

The only attempt at using exclusively in-state circulators since the new statute’s enactment, a referendum effort on behalf of internet sweepstakes businesses, had failed dramatically, with less than 37 percent of submitted signatures found to be valid.

Read the Court’s Order Granting Ohioans for Workplace Freedom’s Motion for Preliminary Injunction HERE.

 

March 16, 2015: Columbus Dispatch: Judge finds Husted liable for enforcing unconstitutional law

Bill Authorizing Warrantless Searches of Ohioans’ Cell Phone Activity Derailed

Stalled in Committee after 1851 Testimony, Bill would permit sharing of
“any information” to law enforcement, if not amended

warrantlesscellColumbus, OH – The 1851 Center for Constitutional Law today took action that stalled passage of Senate Bill 5, legislation that, if enacted, would permit warrantless acquisition, by state and local law enforcement, of Ohioans’ travels and cell phone communications.

The fast-tracked Bill, which passed 32-1 in the Ohio Senate and was poised to be voted out of its House committee today, voted on by the entire House on June 19, and enacted into law within a matter of days, received almost no public or media scrutiny until the 1851 Center’s involvement today.

In his testimony before the House Committee on Transportation Public Safety and Homeland Security, 1851 Center Director Maurice Thompson explained the following:

  • The Bill authorizes wireless service providers to break their voluntarily-agreed-to contracts with Ohio customers, to whom they’ve promised privacy, and strips Ohioans of their right to enforce these contracts, or sue for damages (Cell phone carriers are granted absolute immunity for sharing information with law enforcement).
  • The Bill is broader than the controversial federal NSA program, in that it authorizes searches not related to foreign communications or terrorism, including activity related to petty crime such as driving infractions, or no crime at all.
  • While the Bill’s initial requirements of an “emergency” are well-defined, later division of the Bill place no limits on local law enforcement’s authority to acquire cell phone records of any Ohioan for any reason.
  • Cell phone companies have considerable incentive to share this information with Ohio police, to whom they can sell this information without liability (under the Bill) at up to $2,200 per search.

“We were shocked to learn that this Bill had overwhelmingly passed the Senate with such speed, and that there was previously no opposition,” said Maurice Thompson, Executive Director of the 1851 Center. “Ohioans should be free from warrantless searches of their phone records except in the gravest of emergencies, if at all, and they should be free to contract with carriers that will not sell their information. This Bill would violate those constitutional principles, accomplishing the very thing the Fourth Amendment was written to guard against. That is why we have taken this action.”

After an hour of testimony by Thompson today, which sometimes included tense exchanges with state representatives, the House Committee agreed to table the Bill and field the 1851 Center’s proposed amendment – – which require a search warrants before any non-emergency acquisition of cell phone information may occur – – before taking further action on the Bill. The next Committee meeting on the matter is not yet scheduled.

Upon review of 1851 testimony, several Senators who voted for the Bill have indicated that the Bill was misleading, and that their support, at the behest of Senate leadership, was too hasty.


Read The 1851 Center’s testimony on proposed Senate Bill 5 HERE.


June 19, 2013: WBNS-10TV: Kelsey’s Law On Hold In Ohio After Cell Phone Privacy Issues Raised
June 20, 2013: Sandusky Register: Ohio lawmakers hot for snooping power

Federal Court: University of Cincinnati Speech Restrictions on Students Permanently Enjoined

Students supporting “right to work” amendment cannot be arrested for discussing amendment and gathering signatures on campus

uofcinn1Cincinnati, OH – A federal court today permanently enjoined the University of Cincinnati’s blanket prohibition on student political speech on campus as a violation the First Amendment. The ruling, made by Judge Black of the Cincinnati division of the Southern District of Ohio, paves the way for a likely overhaul of many campus speech policies throughout the state and nation.

The ruling also permits members of the student group Young Americans for Liberty (“YAL”) to advocate and collect signatures for the Ohio Workplace Freedom Amendment on campus.

The 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, which also drafted the Workplace Freedom Amendment, took up the students’ case and challenged UC’s policies after UC threatened to arrest student members of YAL if they attempted to gather signatures for the right-to-work cause on campus.

The lawsuit sought recognition that (1) the First Amendment applied to public university property, such as the University of Cincinnati; (2) signature-gathering for petition drives is a protected form of political speech; and (3) UC’s requirement that all UC students register up to 15 days ahead of time before engaging in any political speech on campus violates the First Amendment.

In his June 12 decision preliminarily enjoining UC policies, Judge Black emphasized “It is simply unfathomable that a UC student needs to give the University advance notice of an intent to gather signatures for a ballot initiative. There is no danger to public order arising out of students walking around campus with clipboards seeking signatures.”

In that decision, the Court further ordered UC to craft “more narrowly tailored regulations that regulate student expressive activities . . . only as are necessary to serve a compelling government interest.”

In response, newly crafted University of Cincinnati speech policies permit unfettered free political speech, including signature gathering, by students, without notice to the University, for groups smaller than 25, and regulates only groups of 5,000 or more.

Today’s final order permanently enjoins UC from returning to its old policies, or any variation thereof. The order, an across-the-board rebuke to UC’s policies, enjoins UC from:

  • “Requiring prior notification for the solicitation by students of signatures for petitions;”
  • “Prohibiting all solicitation by students of signatures for petitions in any designated public forum, including the Free Speech Area, the outdoor spaces described in the MainStreet Event Guide, and campus sidewalks;”
  • “Requiring that all student ‘demonstrations, picketing, or rallies’ occur only in the Free Speech Area;”
  • “Requiring 5 to 15 days prior notification for any and all student ‘demonstrations, picketing, or rallies’ without differentiations;”
  • “Imposing or enforcing any policy restricting student speech in any designated public forum, including the Free Speech Area, the outdoors spaces described in the MainStreet Event Guide, and campus sidewalks, that is not individually and narrowly tailored to serve a compelling university interest.

“We are pleased that the federal court has resolved this matter in favor of free speech, and against government control of young minds. UC is an arm of the state that receives state and federal tax dollars since its inception, all in the name of ‘public education,’” said Maurice Thompson, Executive Director of the 1851 Center.

“It was unwise, and ultimately unconstitutional, for UC to advance public education by shielding its students from actual education on public policy issues that affect all Ohioans. Fortunately, the First Amendment allows us to protect the education of UC students from their educators; it further protects the right of students to calmly address facts and arguments that UC would rather suppress, and to do so without prior permission.”

The 1851 Center and UC students endured four months of procedural tactics, harassing depositions, and frivolous daily letters by UC’s attorneys, after Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine authorized $200,000 in state funds to the private law firm of Crabbe Brown, a campaign contributor of Mr. DeWine’s, to defend the clearly unconstitutional University of Cincinnati policies. The 1851 Center represents clients at no cost.

Multiple Ohio colleges and universities maintain speech restrictions similar in kind, although not as extensive, as those of the University of Cincinnati – – the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education recently named UC’s speech policies the worst in the nation.

The Court’s preliminary and permanent injunction orders can be viewed HERE.

The 1851 Center for Constitutional Law is a non-profit, non-partisan legal center dedicated to protecting the constitutional rights of Ohioans from government abuse. The 1851 Center litigates constitutional issues related to property rights, voting rights, regulation, taxation, and search and seizures.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE; thefire.org) is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities.

Young Americans for Liberty is a national student membership organization dedicated to recruiting, training, educating, and mobilizing students on the ideals of liberty and the Constitution.


August 26, 2012: The News Record: Court reverses UC free speech policy

August 23, 2012: Huffington Post: District Court: Campuses Can’t Quarantine Free Speech

August 23, 2012: Columbus Dispatch: Judge blocks university’s restrictions on speech

August 23, 2012: Cincinnati.com: Judge bans UC’s free speech policy

August 23, 2012: Daily Caller: U. of Cincinnati loses free speech lawsuit — is another Ohio college next?

August 23, 2012: Ohio Liberty Coalition: Federal court stops University of Cincinnati from restricting students’ free speech, president unexpectedly resigns

Federal Court Enjoins Shaker Heights from Blocking Message of Tax-Increase Opponents

shtuCleveland, OH – Yesterday a federal court enjoined the City of Shaker Heights from further harassment of Shaker Heights residents city officials silenced through threat of a frivolous trademark lawsuit. The threat had come in retaliation for the citizens’ opposition to the City of Shaker Heights’ attempt to increase income taxes on residents through an August 7 vote.

The Northern District of Ohio Judge Christopher Boyko ordered that the City “shall take no action which interferes in any way with Plaintiffs’ use of the Shaker Heights Taxpayers Union Logo. . .

This Order comes in response to legal action filed on behalf of the Shaker Heights Taxpayers Union (“SHTU”). This legal action included a demand for an immediate injunction prohibiting city officials from engaging in any further threats, intimidation, or retaliation in response to the taxpayers’ legitimate exercise of their constitutional rights

Shaker Heights resident Mark Zetzer formed the SHTU to advocate against the City’s placement of a personal income tax increase on the August 7 ballot, arguing that Shaker Heights taxes were already the highest in the state. In addition Mr. Zetzer designed for the group a logo that parodies the City of Shaker Heights logo by replacing the City logo’s leaves with dollar signs, to represent City officials’ use of taxation as a first-resort (see the logo below).

Even though federal courts have repeatedly confirmed that the First Amendment trumps trademark law in the field of political speech, just as Mr. Zetzer’s message was beginning to gain traction, the City of Shaker Heights sent Mr. Zetzer a “Demand to Cease and Desist,” threatening that “[f]ailure to stop [use of the SHTU logo] will result in the City taking legal action to protect its trademark, including a request for an award of damages.”

In response, SHTU had been forced to stop using the logo in its campaign.

“This case featured an appalling attempt by city officials to silence anyone who stands in the way of their access to more of Shaker Heights residents’ earnings,” said Maurice Thompson, Executive Director of the 1851 Center. “The Court’s Order preserves the rights of Ohioans to effectively criticize their local governments, particularly as they push for more taxes, and further acknowledges that political speech parodying one’s government cannot be abridged.”

Added Thompson, “Conducting frivolous legal activity on city time is not just unethical – – it’s also a waste of public funds. If the City simply abstained from paying government employees to engage in activities such as instituting official-appearing legal threats to silence opposing viewpoints in the heat of an election, there would likely be no need to impose additional taxes on Shaker Heights residents.”

The logos at issue in this case are below:

L: City of Shaker Heights logo; R: Shaker Heights Taxpayers Union logo

 


July 27, 2012: Cleveland.com: Judge says Shaker Heights can’t stop anti-tax group’s use of logo

 

The 1851 Center’s Complaint can be viewed here.

The Motion for a Preliminary Injunction is available here.

High Court Rebukes Attack on Cincinnati Charter Schools

CPS Deed Restrictions Against Charter and Private Schools Illegal, Cincinnati Charter Schools to Remain Open

Columbus – Cincinnati Public Schools’ (CPS) policy of prohibiting the sale of unused available public school buildings to charter schools and private schools is unlawful and must end, today ruled the Supreme Court of Ohio. This decision rebuffs CPS efforts to shut down numerous successful charters schools in Cincinnati, and is a considerable victory for charter and private school operators throughout the state.

1851 Center for Constitutional Law represented Theodore Roosevelt Community School, a Cincinnati charter school CPS had sued to shut down. Theodore Roosevelt School had purchased an unused school building located in the Fairmount neighborhood, where all CPS schools are in academic emergency, and 80 percent of families are of minority status, and live in poverty. The school opened in August of 2010, and currently serves nearly 300 students and employs 45 staff members.

CPS attempted to enforce a deed restriction prohibiting the use of school buildings previously owned by CPS for use by a charter or private school. The 1851 Center asserted such restrictions are void by Ohio’s public policy in favor of school choice, and cheat taxpayers of sales revenue from the buildings.

The Court’s decision, authored by Justice Lanzinger, acknowledged held “. . . the inclusion of a deed restriction preventing the use of property for school purposes in the contract for sale of an unused school building is unenforceable as against public policy.” The Court added, “[t]he restriction, on its face, prevents the free use of property for education purposes . . . Furthermore, the restriction is not neutral; it seeks to thwart competition by providing that the restriction applies to all buyers except CPS itself.”

“The Court’s decision upholds a landmark ruling in favor of school choice in Ohio, and against adversarial school districts who attempt to block alternative schools’ right to exist,” said 1851 Center Executive Director Maurice Thompson.

“Deed restrictions like the one struck down in this case were devised simply to stop new charter and private schools from opening in Cincinnati, so that CPS could retain students and protect its state funds. In its brief, CPS compares itself to a ‘gas station’ or ‘hotel’ that has a right to use hardball tactics against its competition. It seems to have forgotten that it’s a public school that exists to educate children, rather than amass revenue.”

The Court’s decision suggested promise for the 1851 Center’s overarching approach of using the doctrine “public policy” — the requirement that contract terms are subject to the public interest — to nullify government contract terms that attack school choice and reward special interests. While the Court acknowledged that the doctrine is narrow, it affirms 1851’s position that special scrutiny should apply to government contracts: “in this case, however, involving a contract between a private party and a political subdivision, there is a compelling reason to support application of the doctrine [of public policy].”

This additional ruling exposing CPS to the loss of millions of dollars in funding from the Ohio School Facilities Commission (OSFC), which requires that school districts follow all state rules related to charter schools. The fate of this funding is still in dispute, in a second case brought by the 1851 Center and the Ohio Coalition for Quality Education, still pending before Judge Ruehlman.


June 6, 2012: Cincinnati.com: Ohio court: CPS unfair to charters


All briefs in the case can be viewed here.

Oral Arguments from the case can be viewed here.