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Judge rules Knapik breached First Amendment

Date: 2/28/2014

By Carley Dangona

WESTFIELD – A federal judge ruled that Mayor Daniel Knapik violated the First Amendment rights of two people running for office when he ordered the removal of their campaign signs.

On Feb. 21, Federal District Court Judge Michael Ponsor decided in favor of property owner David Costa, At-large City Councilor David Flaherty and Municipal Light Board Member Jane Wensley in a lawsuit filed against Knapik in March of 2012. The complaint stemmed from an incident in 2011 when the Department of Public Works (DPW) removed the plaintiffs’ political signs per the mayor’s request. Knapik moved for reconsideration of the ruling on Feb. 24. A date is yet to be determined.

The lawsuit states, “The dispute centers on Mayor Knapik’s order on Nov. 7, 2011 to Westfield employees to remove certain political signs in the vicinity of East Silver Street and Lindbergh Boulevard near his home, on the ground that they were creating an unsafe condition by interfering with the sight lines at an intersection. Plaintiffs contend that the safety issue was a pretext; they say Knapik ordered the removal because the signs supported political rivals. As evidence, they point to the undisputed fact that Knapik ordered the removal only of the political signs and allowed a commercial sign to stay.”

It continues, “In response to the order, [Jim] Mulvenna [DPW director] used his two-way radio to pass the direction to DPW Foreman David Curran to remove the signs. Curran filled out a work order and sent two DPW workers to complete the task. Fred Gore, a photographer for Westfield News, overheard the directive over the radio and went to the location, where he photographed the workers removing the political signs. His photograph was later published in the Westfield News.”

In his decision Ponsor stated, “It is clear from the undisputed facts that defendant Knapik’s removal of the signs … constituted a content-based restriction of free speech. It may seem that the court and the parties have expended an extraordinary amount of time and energy over a minor local tiff, involving the brief removal of a few signs. But the impulse to stifle expression may appear, at first, in small ways. An attempt to nibble around the edge of a constitutional right demands exacting scrutiny and a vigilant response if the liberties protected by the Bill of Rights are to be preserved.”

Reminder Publications spoke to Flaherty on Feb. 24. He said, “I think it’s a great decision, a fair decision.”

He stated that the judge “saw through all the excuses” and called the court case “a gross waste of time and money for the government.” Flaherty criticized Knapik’s use of city resources for defense of something that was a “personal decision.”

Flaherty said that we are still sending troops to the Middle East to establish the very freedoms we have as Americans and that this event was a “gross violation of everything we stand for.”

William Newman, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts Western Massachusetts office said, “The mayor’s motion for reconsideration is a tawdry example of an elected official seeking to evade responsibility for his actions.”

Wensley commented, “This entire situation could have been resolved by the mayor simply saying he was sorry for doing something he shouldn’t have done. Instead he has spent thousands of taxpayer dollars to defend the indefensible.”

Knapik could not be reached for comment.