Thursday, January 28, 2010

Lawnside pays $17,500 to settle political free speech case

On December 7, 2009, a Cherry Hill couple accepted $17,500 from the Borough of Lawnside (Camden County) to settle their claim that the Borough and its Construction Code Official, Mengste Thomas El, violated their right to free speech.

In June 2006, according to the lawsuit, Ronald and Alice Wood placed a political banner on their business property on Emlen Avenue in Lawnside. The banner, which was critical of Mayor Mark Bryant and the Borough Council, stated "Lawnside Needs New Leadership--20 Years Is Enough." According to the suit, the Construction Code Official threatened them with prosecution unless they removed the banner within five days. Given the threat, the Woods removed the banner.

The lawsuit alleged that this First Amendment violation is consistent with an "established custom and practice of the Borough of Lawnside, which custom and practice had the objective of stifling political opposition to the existing public officials."

The case is captioned Wood v. Borough of Lawnside et al, Case No. 08-cv-02941. The plaintiff's lawyer was F. Michael Daily, Jr., Esq. of Westmont. The lawsuit and settlement agreement are on-line here.

None of the Woods' allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement expressly states that the $17,500 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Lawnside or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that defendants, and perhaps their insurers, for whatever reason, decided that they would rather pay the Woods and their lawyer $17,500 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants' decision to settle was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases settle before trial--it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.