I just updated one of the more frivolous entries in our legal threats database, which has now spurred a federal lawsuit. While it is barely worth blogging about, I thought it might be valuable as a cautionary tale for those who believe sending cease-and-desist letters is a no-lose proposition.
The entry involves Jennifer Reisinger, who operates Sheboygan Spirit, a website focusing on the government and community of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and Brat City Web Design, a site promoting her web development business. The latter site contained a link to the Sheboygan Police Department (without any text or other explanation, it appears).
On October 19, 2007, the city attorney for the City of Sheboygan sent Reisinger a cease-and-desist letter demanding that she remove the link to the police department from her site. The letter said that "maintenance of this link could be construed as having been authorized or endorsed by the City and/or its Police Department."
Reisinger initially removed the link but nevertheless received a call from the Sheboygan Police, telling her they were conducting "an official police investigation relative to the linking of her Web site to the City of Sheboygan Police Department." Reisinger wisely hired an attorney who advised her to put the link back up. Her attorney also sent several letters to the chief of police, to the mayor, and to the city attorney stating that the city had given no legal basis for its cease-and-desist order.
On November 6, 2007, the city notified Reisinger that it had decided against taking legal action, and the mayor publicly apologized for the incident in an editorial in the local newspaper. End of story? Not exactly.
On August 20, 2008, Reisinger filed a lawsuit in federal court in Milwaukee against the City of Sheboygan, its mayor, police chief, and city clerk, claiming that the defendants violated her First Amendment rights. According to her complaint, the city's initial demand that she remove the link to the police department and the subsequent criminal investigation were done in retaliation for her support of recalling Mayor Juan Perez. As a result of the defendants' actions, she claims she "suffered a significant decrease in income, resulting in an estimated 53% decrease in her personal annual income, significant emotional distress and concern for her safety."
It seems the City of Sheboygan would have done well to remember the adage: "Don't make a federal case out of it."
(If you are interested in following further developments in the case, see our database entry: City of Sheboygan v. Reisinger.)