Westfield Mayor accepts federal court ruling that he violated opponents' First Amendment rights

Property owner and politicians sued Mayor Daniel Knapik for ordering campaign signs removed just before municipal elections decided by fewer than 30 votes. Parties agree Knapik to pay $53,000 for attorneys fees.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Raquel Ronzone, communications specialist, 617-482-3170 x335, rronzone@aclum.org
Christopher Ott, communications director, 617-482-3170 x322, cott@aclum.org

NORTHAMPTON -- Westfield mayor Daniel Knapik today accepted a federal judge's summary judgment that he violated the First Amendment when he ordered campaign signs supporting City Councilor David Flaherty and Municipal Light Board Member Jane Wensley removed just before 2011 municipal elections decided by fewer than 30 votes. Federal District Court Judge Michael Ponsor's ruling from February will stand as the final judgement in the case against Knapik, and plaintiffs agreed they would not further pursue what they believe are additional meritorious claims.

"The federal court has ruled in a loud and clear voice that the mayor violated our First Amendment rights and acted outside the scope of his duties," said City Councilor Flaherty. "The judgment in our favor validates our complaint, and confirms that free speech and fair elections are fundamental civil liberties that are crucially important to protect. Given our legal victory, and in order to avoid further litigation and court costs, we have decided to conclude the case by foregoing our additional meritorious legal claims. We'd like to thank our ACLU of Massachusetts legal team--Luke Ryan, William Newman and Josh Wolk--for doing such a fantastic job on this case."

In February, Judge Ponsor ruled that Knapik violated the First Amendment rights of City Councilor David Flaherty and Municipal Light Board Member Jane Wensley. The day before a municipal election in November 2011, Knapik ordered the city's Department of Public Works to remove campaign signs placed across the street from his home. David Costa, a Westfield property owner, had given the candidates permission to place their signs there.

In his 46-page decision in February, Judge Ponsor granted summary judgment for the plaintiffs: Flaherty, Wensley and Costa. Summary judgment is a decision issued by a court prior to trial based on undisputed facts.

Judge Ponsor pointed out that Knapik ordered only political signs removed and allowed a larger commercial real estate sign to remain at the same place, despite claims that signs interfered with lines of sight at an intersection; that no other person in the City had complained about these signs or their location; that the signs were placed in locations "historically and continuously" devoted to this use; and that the decision to order the signs' removal "was hasty, unprecedented, and outside [the Mayor's] normal ambit of responsibility."

As the prevailing party in this civil rights case, the ACLU is entitled to reasonable attorneys fees to be paid by the defendant. The parties agreed that Knapik will pay $53,000 for attorneys fees.