FREEMAN TOWNSHIP - The Town of Freeman Board Meeting began with the six people present rising for the Pledge of Allegiance. However, before the meeting ended one town supervisor claimed a resolution passed by the other two board members was in direct violation of the First Amendment to U.S. Constitution guaranteeing the right of Free Speech.
Along the way, the board addressed a host of other routine issues including a new residential property not added to the tax roll, FEMA paperwork required for 2016 flood assistance and halting the sale of the township’s sand to residents for their own use.
Most of the agenda passed with a modicum of discussion and unanimous votes and that included raising the town’s contribution to the Ocooch Mountain Rescue Squad from $1,900 annually to $3,000.
Things changed when the resolution barring certain political speech on Town of Freeman property came up.
“Persons running for Town of Freeman public office may not campaign, distribute campaign material, display campaign material or engage another person do so on their behalf on Town of Freeman property,” the resolution stated.
After the agenda item was introduced, Ton Chairperson John Leirmo asked if there was nay discussion on the matter.
Town Supervisor Andy Novak was quick to react.
“I think we better have some discussion,” Novak said. “Who wrote that?”
“I did,” Answered Peggy Audetat, the Freeman Town Clerk.
Novak said the resolution was a “blatant disregard of the U.S. Constitution, specifically the First Amendment.”
Novak warned enforcing the resolution during a campaign could result in litigation against the township in his opinion.
Despite strong opposition form Novak. Leirmo made the motion to adopt the resolution and Freeman Town Supervisor Al Thompson seconded the motion.
In a roll call vote, Leirmo and Thompson voted in favor of the resolution and Novak voted against it.
“Hell no, absolutely not in the name of the U.S. constitution,” were Novak’s exact words in the roll call vote.
Novak seemed flabbergasted at the vote.
“I can’t believe that a township that carries the name of freedom in its name would do this,” Novak said.
“I just heard complaints,” Thompson said in reference to the last election.
Novak questioned how a candidate on the ballot could get out and meet people in the township besides going to a bar, where some people would not be reached.
“You can go door to door,” Leirmo said.
Novak insisted there was a right to free speech on public property and the resolution was 100 percent unconstitutional.
“We never had issues before,” Audetat stated. “People felt intimidated.”
The issue seemed to center on conversations people had at the Freeman Township dump prior to the election.
At one point in the discussion, Novak reminded the other board members that he was not running for re-election.
At another point the other board members and Audetat explained to Novak that both Crawford County and the Wisconsin Towns Association had indicated the resolution was appropriate for the town to adopt.
Crawford County Clerk Janet Geisler and Crawford County Corporate Counsel Mark Peterson said the township had not contacted them about the resolution.
Geisler seemed genuinely surprised to hear that the township had adopted the resolution.
“What are they talking about?” she asked when she heard about the resolution adopted Monday night.
The county clerk said most of the laws governing elections and campaigning were from the state and it was provided by the Wisconsin State Elections Board.
Geisler talked about the Election Day requirements that political advertising and campaigning not occur within 100 feet of the polling place. She also noted the county had some rules prohibiting the posting of political signs on bulletin boards and elsewhere in county buildings.
Attorney Mark Peterson said the resolution as written did not ring a bell for him.
“”It’s nothing I’ve addressed,” Peterson said.
The Crawford County Corporate Counsel said he had little or no involvement in election protocol and most of election rules were administered through the State Elections Board.
When contacted by the Independent-Scout, counsel retained by the Wisconsin Newspaper Association said the resolution appeared a First Amendment violation.
The attorney provided by the WNA Hotline pointed out that a 1971 U.S. Supreme Court decision involving the City of San Francisco found the First Amendment has its “full most urgent application to speech uttered during a campaign for political office.”
There are instances where some restriction of free speech can be acceptable, but there must be a compelling reason and the restriction must be narrowly tailored to address the specific situation, the attorney explained. He also noted the First Amendment guarantee of free speech is most importantly guaranteed in public places.
The attorney indicated that the rule created by the Freeman Township resoluiton would “quite certainly get struck down” in court.