Our free and democratic society isn’t possible if citizens cannot voice their opinions about politics and elected officials. That’s why the First Amendment safeguards people’s rights to participate in the political process, to criticize government officials and to advocate for political change. That’s just what William Fambrough was doing in his home city of East Cleveland in 2021 when he used his step van—outfitted as a sound truck with a candidate poster—to campaign for a challenger to the incumbent mayor.
But rather than respecting his basic rights, the city government, angered at its political competition, used its police and law departments to retaliate against William in the months leading up to the election. Police officers repeatedly showed up at William’s home and claimed that parking the van there violated an old city ordinance—an ordinance that is never enforced against anyone else. They ultimately fined him and towed his van, doing thousands of dollars of damage in the process. And they cited William for “noise pollution,” despite his obtaining a permit to broadcast campaign messages from his van throughout East Cleveland.
Because the towing caused so much damage to the van, it knocked it out of commission for the crucial final weeks of the campaign. When William went to court to resolve the noise citation, the city’s assistant law director made it clear that William was being targeted for his political advocacy.
Government officials using the police to punish political opponents is a core violation of the First Amendment. William is fighting back with a lawsuit against East Cleveland to vindicate his First Amendment rights and to hold city officials accountable. Represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ), his lawsuit is part of IJ’s long tradition of protecting free speech. The lawsuit is also part of IJ’s Project on Immunity and Accountability, which is devoted to the simple idea that government officials are not above the law; just as citizens must follow the law, the government must follow the Constitution.
East Cleveland’s retaliatory tactics go beyond depriving William of his rights. Without being held to account, East Cleveland will serve as a model to local governments that want to punish political enemies. The sheer number of laws on the books in federal, state and municipal codes ensures that government officials can always find one to enforce against any American. If they are allowed to do so when the reason is retaliation for political speech, then nobody’s rights are safe.
East Cleveland is a small suburb of Cleveland, only about seven miles from downtown. The city rose to prominence during Cleveland’s industrial height in the early 20th century and still has stately neighborhoods and parks developed by John D. Rockefeller, as well as the world’s first industrial park. But the city also has its share of problems, including one of Ohio’s highest poverty rates, and financial difficulties that have left it in a state of fiscal emergency. It’s also developed a reputation for political corruption and severe police misconduct.
Despite its recent troubles, however, William loves the city. He has been involved in local politics for decades and continues to be an advocate for better government. When his good friend and City Council Member Juanita Gowdy announced in the spring of 2021 that she was challenging the incumbent, Mayor Brandon King, on a reform platform, William enthusiastically signed up to support her. By the time the Gowdy campaign was up and running in May 2021, it was well known that William was backing her.
William has run his own media company in the Cleveland area for four decades. He and his wife moved to East Cleveland in 2006, using his step van as a moving truck. (A step van is like a FedEx truck.) He is a fixture in local politics through his media company and political activism. At various times, he has run East Cleveland’s public-broadcast channel, sat on the city library board, and run for school board.
East Cleveland Retaliates Against William for his Political Speech
The most visible way William supported Councilwoman Gowdy’s campaign was by outfitting his step van with a large Gowdy campaign sign and sound equipment to broadcast campaign messages. William got a permit from city hall signed by the chief of police to operate his van as a sound truck during the election. He and Gowdy’s campaign manager would regularly drive the truck around the city in the months leading up to the election, occasionally as part of a larger caravan of supporters in cars. The sound truck processions were the Gowdy supporters’ principal form of campaigning.
But William’s campaign activity attracted the city’s ire. In May 2021, a police officer issued William a warning ticket for parking his step van at his home—even though William had parked the van there since he bought the home in 2006 without incident and had even specifically expanded his driveway to accommodate the van. William’s neighbor also parked a nearly identical step van at his home for years without incident, and similarly sized (and larger) vehicles are routinely parked around the city without the police expressing concern. In fact, William has since learned that the city has no records of the parking ordinance ever being enforced before it was used against William .
That wasn’t the end of William’s trouble with the city. The police tried to tow his step van a few days later, so William began parking it out of town. It turns out it was wise for William to be cautious about leaving his van within city limits, because the police came to his home again in July to hassle him about using the step van for Gowdy’s campaign, when the campaigning was firmly underway. But parking the van out of town meant adding an hour of commuting time every time the Gowdy campaign wanted to host a campaign event.
Eventually, the city got its way. William parked the step van at his home on August 18, planning to take it out to campaign later that afternoon. Even though East Cleveland has serious crime problems and a short-staffed police department, a group of seven or eight officers descended on William’s leafy street to tow his van for supposedly being illegally parked—even though William, his daughter and Gowdy’s campaign manager could all have safely driven the van away. After paying a fee to the city, William recovered his van from the tow lot only to discover that it had been severely damaged and would require thousands of dollars in repairs. As a result of the damage, the step van was out of commission for the final weeks of the campaign, thereby depriving Gowdy’s supporters of their principal way of communicating with voters at a crucial moment.
East Cleveland Expands and Admits Retaliation Against William for his Political Speech
When the police towed William’s step van for the supposed parking violation, they also gave William a complaint and summons. They claimed this was for violating a city noise ordinance, even though William had a permit signed by the police chief specifically to use a sound truck to campaign. The complaint was also suspect because sound trucks are a common way to campaign in East Cleveland. In fact, William had used his step van to campaign in just the same way for a school-board election without incident. And the Supreme Court has recognized for nearly a century—almost since the dawn of amplified sound—that sound trucks are a critical medium of core First Amendment-protected political speech.
William got a lawyer to defend himself from the noise complaint. The attorney called the city’s assistant law director, Heather McCollough, who was handling the case. McCollough told William’s lawyer that that although the city would normally not pursue minor issues like the noise complaint, in this case they might not be willing to resolve it unless William would “stand down.” The assistant law director specifically cited as grievances William’s First Amendment-activity, such as making complaints about the police department, making public records requests, and inquiring about local ordinances. When William and his attorney went to court to resolve the complaint, no judge was present—but the assistant law director was. She agreed to let William plead to an even more minor misdemeanor but warned that William would not be treated in the future as leniently if he continued to cause problems “downtown,” and she said that William needed to watch himself and “mind his own business” going forward.
If it wasn’t already obvious, then, the city lawyer handling William’s case made it crystal clear that William’s problems from the police and law department were really because of his political advocacy.
The Constitution Protects Political Speech and Prohibits Government Officials from Retaliating Against Individuals Like William Who Exercise Their Rights
The First Amendment is the foundation of our free and democratic society. By protecting Americans’ rights to speak on political issues, to petition their government, and to question their elected officials, it holds the government to account and allows voters to make informed choices. But those rights are meaningless if government officials can retaliate against people who speak out against them. If government officials are allowed to comb through the law books and find little-used rules as a pretext to harass those whose views they dislike, it’s no different in practice from just having a law against political dissent. Nothing is more repugnant to the First Amendment.
To make matters worse, courts have erected a jumble of legal doctrines and rules making it incredibly difficult for ordinary people whose rights are violated to hold government officials accountable for illegal or unconstitutional actions, from the president to local police and prosecutors. Unfortunately, in many circumstances, the courts have held that government officials are immune. But that is beginning to change, thanks in part to the Institute for Justice’s efforts to hold government officials accountable. A growing number of federal appeals courts have ruled that official immunity is not absolute: When officials flagrantly violate citizens’ rights, they can be held accountable in court.
Here, it’s obvious that the City of East Cleveland, its police and law department officials selectively targeted William with obscure local ordinances, all because he spoke out for a change in the government. That retaliation is unconstitutional, so the Institute for Justice is representing William to vindicate his constitutional rights. In addition to being part of IJ’s core mission of protecting free speech, the lawsuit is part of IJ’s Project on Immunity and Accountability, which is devoted to the simple idea that government officials are not above the law; if citizens must follow the law, then government must follow the Constitution.
The Legal Claims
This case raises three claims under the First Amendment. First, that individual government officials—the mayor, police chief, law director, assistant law director, and the police—violated William’s rights. Second, that—through policy or custom—the city of East Cleveland violated William’s rights as well. Third, that the noise ordinance that the city pretextually enforced against William is itself unconstitutional: as the city interpreted it, it impermissibly required William to get the mayor’s permission to campaign against him.
This case also argues that the city and its officials violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause because the city lacked any legitimate reason to single out William for enforcement of the parking and noise ordinances.
Finally, the city and its officials violated the Fourth Amendment because it was unreasonable to tow William’s step van when it was not causing a problem to anybody and when multiple people were available to safely drive it away.
William’s lawsuit is in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, case number 1:22-cv-00992.
The Litigation Team
The case is being litigated by Institute for Justice Attorneys Ben Field and Caroline Grace Brothers, and Senior Attorney Jeff Rowes. Local counsel is IJ Attorney Brian Morris.
About the Institute for Justice
Founded in 1991, the Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty. IJ is dedicated to protecting fundamental free speech rights and to fighting judge-made rules that make it extremely difficult to hold government officials accountable for violating the Constitution. Our efforts include direct lawsuits against government officials at all stages of litigation (such as our cases on behalf of Sylvia Gonzalez, Erma Wilson, Cassi Pollreis, Hamdi Mohamud and Kevin Byrd), appellate friend-of-the-court briefs in support of individuals who have suffered at the hands of government officials, and outreach to members of the public who want to know more about the difficulties of suing governments and their employees for violating individual rights. We do all of this because of our fundamental belief that following the Constitution means being held accountable for violating it.
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