WESTFIELD, Mass. (WWLP/ACLU) – Westfield Mayor Daniel Knapik on Monday accepted a federal judge’s ruling that he violated the First Amendment when he ordered campaign signs removed just before the 2011 municipal elections, decided by fewer than 30 votes.
In February, Federal District Court Judge Michael Ponsor ruled that Mayor Knapik violated the First Amendment rights of City Councilor David Flaherty and Municipal Light Board Member Jane Wensley.
According to the ACLU, the day before a municipal election in November 2011, Mayor Knapik ordered the city’s Department of Public Works to remove the campaign signs placed across the street from his home. David Costa, a Westfield property owner, had given the candidates permission to place their signs there.
Mayor Knapik claimed the signs were a safety hazard during the October snowstorm clean up.
Westfield City Councilor David Flaherty told 22News, “That was an excuse used by the mayor after the fact. These signs were not anywhere near anything that had to be cleaned up. I know because I was out there cleaning up. This is just a total nonsense excuse, and I’m glad the judge saw right through it.”
Mayor Knapik said in a news release he never intended to violate anyone’s First Amendment rights:
“While I disagree with the result, I would rather accept responsibility for my actions than continue to fight this claim. In the long run, while the judgment may affect me and my reputation, I am more concerned about putting this lawsuit in the past…and focusing on what is best to move the City of Westfield forward.”
Judge Ponsor’s ruling will stand as the final judgment in the case against Mayor Knapik, and plaintiffs agreed they would not further pursue what they believe are additional claims.
Judge Ponsor pointed out that:
- Mayor Knapik ordered only political signs removed and allowed a larger commercial real estate sign to remain at the same place
- No other person in the City had complained about these signs or their location
- The signs were placed in locations “historically and continuously” devoted to this use
- The decision to order the signs’ removal “was hasty, unprecedented, and outside the Mayor’s normal ambit of responsibility.”
Mayor Knapik may have to pay a $53,000 attorney fee after agreeing he violated political candidates’ rights to free speech.