City Sends Police After Man Campaigning for Mayor’s Opponent
William Fambrough and his wife have lived in East Cleveland, a small suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, for over 15 years. Despite its troubles, William loves East Cleveland and has long been involved in local politics to try to make it a better place. But when his advocacy ran up against the incumbent administration, he learned the hard way how easy it is for officials to weaponize laws to retaliate against their political enemies.
In the 2021 mayoral election, William supported his friend, a city councilwoman running on an anti-corruption platform against the incumbent. The centerpiece of the campaign was using William’s step van—a former FedEx delivery truck outfitted with a speaker and a life-size campaign poster of the candidate—to broadcast campaign audio messages around town. But the powers that be didn’t appreciate the criticism. In fact, the police harassed William at his home for months and eventually towed the van, damaging it so much that it was rendered inoperable for the crucial final weeks of the campaign.
If it weren’t for the trampling of William’s First Amendment rights, it would be comical how little city officials tried to hide their retaliatory motives. The police towed William’s van even though he had parked it at his home for 15 years without incident—and nearly-identical trucks in the neighborhood weren’t towed. City records show the decades-old ordinance used to seize the van is never enforced. The police also cited William for noise pollution even though he had a permit signed by the chief of police to broadcast campaign messages and had previously used his van as a sound truck for political campaigns without incident—that is, until he started campaigning against the mayor. And when William went to court to resolve the noise citation, the city attorney even told William and his lawyer that the enforcement was because of William’s political activity and that he needed to “stand down.
Now William has teamed up with IJ to defend his First Amendment rights and to hold city officials accountable for targeting political speech. Cases like his are disappointingly common and show how the many (often vague) laws in municipal, state, and federal codebooks make it easy for unscrupulous officials to find excuses to target anybody whose views they don’t like.
When that happens, the victims often have a hard time getting accountability. Although courts generally protect political speech when legislatures write laws to restrict it, courts have invented a series of First Amendment doctrines that make it difficult to hold executive officials to account when they target speech for individual retaliation. On top of that, doctrines like qualified immunity and prosecutorial immunity can also stand in the way. Those doctrines don’t just apply to on-the-spot police decisions; they also shield premeditated schemes to violate rights perpetrated by mayors, city attorneys, agents, or any other government officials.
That’s why William’s fight is so important. If government officials punish citizens for their political speech, there must be a price to pay. If East Cleveland officials have forgotten that vital principle, IJ is happy to remind them.
Ben Field is an IJ attorney.
Also in this issue
Subscribe to get Liberty & Law magazine direct to your mailbox!
Sign up to receive IJ's bimonthly magazine, Liberty & Law, along with breaking news updates about the Institute for Justice's fight to protect the rights of all Americans.