Judge ruled against Knapik in free speech case

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (WWLP) – Westfield’s mayor violated the First Amendment rights of two political candidates and a city landowner, a federal judge has ruled.

Judge Michael Ponsor issued judgments Friday in a case filed by City Councilor David Flaherty, municipal light board candidate Jane Wensley, and property owner David Costa. The three sued Mayor Daniel Knapik after he ordered the removal of political signs that were on a tree belt at Lindbergh Blvd. and East Silver Street back in October of 2011.

Knapik had said that the signs were being removed as a safety concern for drivers at that intersection. The plaintiffs, however, had argued that this was not the case, saying that the signs were removed because the candidates were rivals to Knapik, and that a nonpolitical commercial sign remained standing on the property after the political signs were removed.

Ponsor agreed with the plaintiffs, writing in his decision: “It is clear from the undisputed facts that Defendant Knapik’s removal of the signs—whatever his actual intent—constituted a content-based restriction of free speech.”

The judge, however, threw out a civil rights claim filed by the plaintiffs, saying that they did not show that they were victims of threats, intimidation, or coercion, and he also ruled against the plaintiffs on a conversion claim.

The question of just who is the owner of the tree belt, whether it is Costa as the plaintiffs claim or the City of Westfield, as Knapik claims, remains open, and Ponsor refused to issue a decision on that matter.

He says that the case may seem minor on its surface, but it is very important.

“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,” Ponsor wrote in his conclusion.

Ponsor says that a hearing will be held later on the judgment in favor of the plaintiffs, as well as the matter of attorney’s fees.

22News reporter Laura Hutchinson caught up with Mayor Knapik at Outlook 2014 in Springfield Monday afternoon, but he declined to comment on the matter. He has issued a motion to reconsider, arguing in part that he ordered all signs removed from the tree belt in question; not solely political signs.

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