Wisconsin woman fined for hanging ribbons claims free-speech violation

Thursday, September 16, 1999

A Beloit, Wis., woman who was cited for violating a sign ordinance because she hung yellow ribbons throughout the city to remind residents of U.S. troops in Kosovo has taken her appeal to a higher court.

On Aug. 27, a municipal judge ruled that Mieke Veneman had violated a city law prohibiting the “placing of signs in the public way.” Before the municipal court, Veneman argued that she could not be fined under the sign ordinance because her ribbons were not signs. However, Judge William T. Henderson determined that the ribbons fit the definition of a sign in the ordinance and fined Veneman.

“The Court finds that the yellow ribbons were devices used to attract attention to a specific subject matter for the purpose of information and therefore constituted 'signs,'” Henderson wrote in his opinion.

Veneman contends that her actions in hanging approximately 500 yellow ribbons on trees and utility poles in April constituted a form of free expression protected by the First Amendment.

Earlier this month, Veneman appealed the decision to a state circuit court where she will be tried before six jurors. Her attorney, Thomas McClure, said that under Wisconsin civil law, at least five of the six members of the jury would have to vote against his client for the civil charges to stick.

A Wisconsin affiliate attorney with the Virginia-based Rutherford Institute, McClure says his client's First Amendment free-speech rights have been violated. “The city has engaged in viewpoint discrimination,” he said. “This is an attempt to find a way to curtail [Veneman's] patriotic expression in the community, and the city officials have done this by applying an ordinance that doesn't fit.”

“Ms. Veneman did not violate the sign ordinance, but the City of Beloit has violated her right of freedom of speech,” said John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, in a news release. “Ms. Veneman was simply trying to honor and support our soldiers, but the city officials have punished her for her actions instead of praising her good intentions.”

Assistant city attorney Tom Casper says that the city is not trampling on freedom of expression. “The primary purposes of the sign ordinance are aesthetic and safety concerns,” he said. “These ribbons placed near public roads can distract motorists.”

Casper said that Veneman had other, more appropriate places to place her ribbons. “She could place these ribbons on her own property rather than on public roads,” he said.

Casper said the city would probably file a summary judgment motion to have the circuit court dismiss the case and that the case should not go to a jury because there are no factual disputes.