Wildwood Pays $295,000 in One of the Largest First Amendment Settlements in the Midwest

(St. Louis University School of Law Press Release – February 15, 2021) – A former candidate for Wildwood City Council who faced interference by local officials during his campaign in 2018 has settled his lawsuit against the City of Wildwood, Mayor Jim Bowlin and former City Administrator Ryan Thomas. The settlement was reached after Wildwood agreed to issue a statement committing to protecting First Amendment rights of all of its citizens. The City also agreed to have its key officials undergo training on the First Amendment and the Sunshine Act, and pay a monetary settlement of $295,000.

Tony Salvatore, an Air Force Veteran and long-time resident of Wildwood, ran for City Council in the April 2018 election. According to the lawsuit he filed in federal court in St. Louis in 2019, City officials contacted the St. Louis County Police, who patrol Wildwood, to tell Salvatore he could not campaign on sidewalks holding a sign supporting his own candidacy.  Wildwood had an ordinance at the time that banned holding any signs on any public property, including sidewalks. Salvatore’s “crime” was holding a sign that said “Salvatore for Wildwood.” The lawsuit alleged the City’s ordinance and its actions interfered with Salvatore’s First Amendment right to campaign.

Included in the lawsuit was an email from Salvatore’s opponent in the city council election who complained that by holding a sign on a sidewalk for drivers to see, Salvatore was hurting his opponent’s election campaign. According to the lawsuit, police started harassing Salvatore to stop holding his campaign sign shortly after that email.

Salvatore was represented in the case by Thomas Applewhite, partner of the Donner Applewhite law firm in St. Louis, Christian Misner, attorney at Donner Applewhite, Professor Emeritus John Ammann of the Saint Louis University Legal Clinics and law students of the Clinic, and attorney Nicholas Dudley, partner at the Hollingshead and Dudley law firm.

In the agreed upon statement as part of the settlement, Wildwood makes commitments to protect the First Amendment rights of citizens. That statement says, in part, that “the City of Wildwood reaffirms its commitment to protecting every citizen’s and every candidate’s free speech rights under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, including the right to engage in political speech and to vigorously campaign for oneself, for other candidates and for referendum initiatives.” The statement can be found in its entirety on the City of Wildwood’s web site.

The settlement also calls for Wildwood to have several city officials attend training sessions on the Missouri Sunshine Law and on the protections of the First Amendment. The Missouri Attorney General’s Office will provide the training on the Sunshine Act and the ACLU of Missouri will provide the training on the First Amendment.

The defendants did not admit liability in the settlement.

While the lawsuit was pending, Wildwood took steps to amend its sign ordinances to eliminate provisions that restricted free speech, and eliminated the ban on signs on public property.

Of this experience, Salvatore, the plaintiff in the lawsuit, said, “Clearly Mayor James Bowlin and others failed to respect my First Amendment right of free speech, but far worse, used their offices and Wildwood police to harass and intimidate me unlawfully.  This federal court settlement of $295,000 sends a clear message to leaders like Mayor Bowlin and to cities like Wildwood, that they cannot trample citizens’ First Amendment rights.  This is a win against tyranny for all of us.  Truly, you can fight city hall and win.”

Lead attorney Thomas Applewhite said, “Democracy flourishes at the intersection of the First Amendment and a campaign for political office. The proposition that someone would be harassed by police and referred for prosecution just for holding a campaign sign on a sidewalk sounds like something out of Soviet Russia. Because this is America, my client stood up for our freedom to try to unseat established politicians. Now, instead of attempting to prosecute the exercise of free speech, Wildwood has agreed to protect that right.”

Christian Misner, an attorney with Donner Applewhite, said of the agreement, “This settlement represents a victory for free speech not just in Wildwood, but anywhere in America where a municipal government seeks to suppress the voices of citizens who dare to take a stand against an incumbent body of politicians.”

If you’re interested in learning more about this monumental settlement, please check out the following links:

  1. KMOV
  2. STL Today
  3. STL Record
  4. News Break