Valley Center homeowner Jarrod West just wanted the water drainage problems in his neighborhood fixed when he posted a sign in his yard this summer protesting inaction by the city and its administrator.
The sign led to a criminal complaint against West that in turn sparked a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday by the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas & Western Missouri underlining the homeowner's free-speech rights.
The ACLU championed his case after the city filed, then withdrew, a criminal defamation citation against West that has left him afraid to repost his sign.
"It is essential to allow people to criticize their municipal government, and the actions in regards to Mr. West's sign are outrageous," ACLU legal director Doug Bonney said Wednesday. "I think his sign is clearly protected by the First Amendment and the city does not like his message so they want to shut him up — and we don't cotton to that at the ACLU."
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According to the lawsuit, West put up a sign on June 25 in his yard that read: "Dear Valley Center, I did not buy Lake Front Property! Fix this problem. This is what I pay taxes for. P.S. Joel this means you!"
The "Joel" in the sign was City Administrator Joel Pile.
Pile did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The ACLU said in its complaint that the City Attorney Barry Arbuckle sent West a letter questioning the factual accuracy of the yard sign, particularly Pile's personal responsibility for drainage problems.
Arbuckle did not immediately return a message left at his law office for comment.
West, fearing legal action by the city, removed the yard sign on July 10.
Eight days later Valley Center named West as a defendant in a criminal complaint, alleging the sign's claims exposed Pile to public contempt and ridicule and tended to deprive him of "the benefit of public confidence and social acceptance," according to court documents.
A month later, the city dismissed the complaint without prejudice — meaning it could refile the charges. When West asked whether the city would bring charges if he displayed the same yard sign, the city attorney allegedly responded, "I will not advise of my action should Mr. West republish his sign," according to the ACLU's lawsuit.
The lawsuit seeks preliminary and permanent injunctions against Valley Center restraining them from interfering with the homeowner's exercise of his rights of freedom of speech. It also seeks a declamatory judgment ruling that his yard sign is protected speech, along with monetary damages to compensate him for his emotional distress and attorney's fees.