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Luce v. Town of Campbell

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

September 22, 2017

Gregory Luce and Nicholas Newman, Plaintiffs-Appellants,
v.
Town of Campbell, Wisconsin, and Tim Kelemen, Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued January 19, 2016

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin. No. 14-cv-046-wmc - William M. Conley, Judge.

          Before Easterbrook, Rovner, and Sykes, Circuit Judges.

          Easterbrook, Circuit Judge.

         Interstate 90 runs through the Town of Campbell, Wisconsin. The speed limit on 1-90 in the Town is 65 miles per hour. Two streets and one pedestrian overpass cross the highway within the Town. A traffic survey in 2008 found that between 23, 000 and 29, 000 trucks and cars pass through the Town on 1-90 every day.

         Gregory Luce and Nicholas Newman, two members of the local Tea Party, decided that the pedestrian overpass would be a good place to draw attention to their views. The group's placement of banners bearing messages such as "HONK TO IMPEACH OBAMA" led the Town's legislature to enact an ordinance forbidding all signs, flags, and banners (other than traffic-control information) on any of the three overpasses, or within 100 feet of the end of these structures. The ordinance is content-neutral; it does not matter what message any privately placed sign bears. Reed v. Gilbert, 135 S.Ct. 2218 (2015). The ordinance is a time, place, and manner limit, permitting messages to be conveyed anywhere else in Campbell. But in this suit under 42 U.S.C. §1983 Luce and Newman contend that the First Amendment (applied to the states by the Fourteenth) permits them to carry or place banners and signs everywhere in the Town. The district court disagreed with that contention and granted summary judgment to the Town. See 113 F.Supp.3d 1002 (W.D. Wis. 2015). The court also dismissed a claim against Tim Kelemen, formerly the Town's chief of police. 116 F.Supp.3d 915 (W.D. Wis. 2015). We start with the plaintiffs' claim against Kelemen, because his conduct may affect how to understand the genesis and enforcement of the ordinance.

         When the Town's police force began to hand out citations and escort demonstrators off the pedestrian overpass, they responded by making video recordings and posting them on a website. Kelemen did not take kindly to these videos, especially because one of them showed people being removed for unfurling a large American flag. Viewers started complaining that the police were mistreating the Tea Party. Kelemen then decided to act as a vigilante-as he said in discovery, "It's just like, you know, you want to mess with us ... we'll mess with you." Kelemen decided to "mess with" Luce by posting his name and email address on websites catering to gay men and consumers of pornography. That caused embarrassment to Luce and led to unwanted email and other attention. Kelemen also posted comments on the local newspaper's website accusing Luce of failing to pay his property taxes and other debts and asserting that his car was about to be repossessed. Kelemen tried to hide his role-he signed the comments "Bill O'Reilly"-but his identity eventually came out, and Luce sued on a constitutional theory (that Kelemen was penalizing both the Tea Party's speech on the bridge and its videos), plus state tort law.

         Kelemen disgraced himself. When what he had done became known, he resigned as police chief. He was prosecuted for violating Wis.Stat. §947.0125(2)(e) (unlawful use of a computerized communication system), pleaded no contest, and received a diversionary disposition. The district court held, however, that Kelemen had not violated Luce's rights under the First Amendment, and it relinquished supplemental jurisdiction over the state-law claims.

         The court concluded that Kelemen was not engaged in state action when "messing with" Luce and that the First Amendment therefore did not apply (for it deals only with governmental conduct). Acting as a vigilante is not part of a police officer's job. Kelemen did some of the dirty work while on duty and used an office computer for some posts. But he did not use official information or privileged access to information. All of the facts he gathered and disclosed about Luce, such as his physical and email addresses, were available to the general public. Anyone else could have done exactly what Kelemen did. And that's why the district judge thought that he was acting in a private capacity, off on a lark and a frolic as some cases say, rather than as a police officer. The judge held that remedies under state law are the right response to Kelemen's misconduct.

         A public employee's acts occur under color of state law when they relate to official duties. See, e.g., Gibson v. Chicago, 910 F.2d 1510, 1516 (7th Cir. 1990); Hughes v. Meyer, 880 F.2d 967, 971-72 (7th Cir. 1989). Defamation was not among Kelemen's duties. What he did was not even a misguided effort to perform an official function. His activities could be called "related" to official duties in the sense that they were designed to injure a person who criticized Kelemen's implementation of the Town's ordinance, but the same could be said about the misconduct at issue in Honaker v. Smith, 256 F.3d 477 (7th Cir. 2001). There we held that a fire chief was not acting under color of state law when he burned down the house of a disgruntled citizen whom the chief had come to regard as a pest. Arson is not among a fire chief's duties, just as defamation is not among a police chief's. So we agree with the district court that state law, not §1983, provides the appropriate remedy for Kelemen's misconduct. See also, e.g., Latuszkin v. Chicago, 250 F.3d 502, 505-06 (7th Cir. 2001); Pickrel v. Springfield, 45 F.3d 1115, 1118-19 (7th Cir. 1995).

         Kelemen's behavior bears on this federal suit, however, by undermining his credibility. Much of the information presented to the Town's legislature, and to the district court, about the reason for the ordinance's enactment came from Kelemen. He told the legislature, and the judge, that the Tea Party's banners caused drivers to pull off the road to take photographs, produced complaints from drivers about slow and snarled traffic, and so on. Given Kelemen's misconduct, it is not possible (when acting on a motion for summary judgment) to accept his statements as truthful, even though there was no directly opposing evidence.

         This gives plaintiffs an opening. They recognize that Campbell's ordinance is similar to one that was enacted by the City of Madison, Wisconsin, and sustained against constitutional challenge in Ovadal v. Madison, 469 F.3d 625 (7th Cir. 2006) (holding that the adoption of an ordinance like Campbell's made a constitutional challenge moot by implementing a nondiscriminatory system). See also Ovadal v. Madison, 416 F.3d 531, 536 (7th Cir. 2005) (remarking that constitutional problems in Madison's initial approach to the subject could be solved if the City "prohibited not just Ovadal's, but all protests and all signs on all Beltline overpasses"). But they insist that all time, place, and manner regulations require empirical support and contend that without Kelemen's evidence the Town's ordinance has none.

         Plaintiffs offered some evidence of their own, in the form of a report from traffic engineer Paul Dorothy. He reached two principal conclusions: first, that 23, 000 cars a day is light traffic, compared with the highway's design limit; second, that the presentation of signs and banners on overpasses is unlikely to cause "long traffic back-ups", contrary to Kelemen's submission. (Kelemen subjectively rated Campbell's portion of 1-90 as unusually hazardous; Dorothy's report shows that this assertion lacks empirical support.) For its part, the Town offered some evidence independent of Kelemen's observation. Officer Casper testified that he observed a car that had pulled off the road to take pictures of signs on the overpass. The record contains a photograph of one car pulled over, with occupants taking pictures. The Town did not conduct a formal safety evaluation, however.

         The paucity of evidence from anyone other than Kelemen leads us to ask whether record evidence supporting time, place, and manner restrictions is always essential. Plaintiffs say yes, relying on decisions such as McCullen v. Coakley,134 S.Ct. 2518 (2014), and Renton v. Playtime Theatres, Inc.,475 U.S. 41 (1986). McCullen dealt with speech about abortion and Renton with the location of sexually oriented businesses. The jurisdictions that enacted ...


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