Last January, the Mount Pleasant Village Board unanimously voted to create a new charter ordinance which would lengthen their terms in office from two years to three years (making them the only trustees in Racine County with 3 year terms) AND stagger trustee seat elections so that no more than two trustee seats would ever be on a spring election ballot.
ABMP defeated the ordinance by gathering over a thousand signatures which would force approval of the ordinance to a public referendum vote first.
Knowing they would not win a referendum, the Village Board repealed the ordinance.
So, why did they do it in the first place?
Because, in April 2023 three Village Trustee seats are on the ballot AND the Village President. That's four out of seven seats — a voting majority of the Village Board.
Trustees and Village Hall staff openly said at the time they were acting to avoid a future majority sweep — which would disrupt their power and authority. They saw April 2023 coming and knew they were vulnerable to being removed by voters.
Of the many cynical things this Village Board has said and done, this was perhaps the worst. None of them deserve to remain as village officials.
While everyone right now is focused on the November partisan elections, we are on the eve of preparing for April nonpartisan elections.
Candidates for local office will begin circulating nomination papers in December and plan to file the required candidate paperwork at Village Hall on the first Tuesday in January. It’s not a difficult process at all, but the holiday season tends to leave people flat-footed and before you know it, the deadline to file has already passed.
This is why we started talking about it early.
So, what does it take to actually get on the ballot in April?
Candidates for Village Trustee must fill out and submit three forms:
These are basically forms which say I’m running for office, here’s my bank account info where I will be depositing any campaign donations I receive, and the signatures of a minimum of twenty, but no more than one hundred, eligible voters in Mount Pleasant.
If you decide to raise or personally contribute more than $2000 in a calendar year to your campaign, you need to file campaign finance reports which is basically a list of all your campaign donations and expenses.
To a first-time candidate, this might sound somewhat daunting. It is not.
There are clear and concise directions on the forms. The Village Clerk can answer your questions, and we are happy to check all your forms before you submit them.
Even if you make a mistake — all your forms can be amended.
The Mount Pleasant Village Clerk has a candidate packet you can access online. The wording is a little terse — don’t be intimidated — they just don’t want you to run.
The 2023 packet is not yet posted, but you can look over the 2022 packet here: http://www.mtpleasantwi.gov/DocumentCenter/View/2108/Candidate-Packet-2022---standard-spring-election?bidId=
Submitting your paperwork is probably the hardest part and you’ll have plenty of support in getting it right.
Now that you understand HOW to get on the ballot, the big question is WHY should you?
Obviously, the first answer is to serve your community. But, there are many ways of doing that. Asking people to step out of their busy lives to try and become a public official is a very big ask.
Sure, you can run because your buddy on the board needs another “yes” vote. You can run to add it to your list of extracurriculars on LinkedIn or your resume. But, haven’t we had enough of that?
In my experience, the main reason people run for office is they have become personally affected by something their local government has done. A self-activated candidate, in my opinion, is the strongest candidate.
What most people won’t tell you is that it’s pretty darn interesting. You will learn a lot.
There are meetings, not many. A few every month. Trustees serve on Village Committees and/or Commissions, but it’s a shared responsibility.
April 2023 presents us with a unique opportunity. Not just to break the cronyism that has gripped Village Hall, but to actually change the culture of Village Hall. Residents should be treated like neighbors, not a nuisance.
If you are interested in running for Village Trustee, we will be happy to sit down with you and talk about it. If you know someone who would be great, tell them to contact us.
We simply cannot let another election cycle go by in which Village Trustees face no opponents!
MOUNT PLEASANT, WI SEPTEMBER 26, 2022 - The local community watchdog group A Better Mt. Pleasant is launching a village-wide effort to recruit candidates to run for four seats on the Village Board of Trustees — including Village President — ahead of the April 2023 election.
In the last two elections, in 2021 and 2022, no candidate for Mount Pleasant Village Trustee faced an opponent on election day. In 2019 and 2020, just two village trustees faced an opponent out of seven seats. In fact, it’s been more than five years since every candidate had an opponent, giving voters a choice in who represents them in Mount Pleasant.
“In a village of 26,000, our trustees basically appointed themselves with only the 20 nomination signatures required to be placed on the ballot,” said Kelly Gallaher, organizer for A Better Mt. Pleasant. “We understand that asking our neighbors to begin the process of cleaning up the mess that Foxconn and Village Hall have made is a hard ask. But, 2023 presents our community with a very unique opportunity.”
Four seats, including the Village President, will be on the April ballot — representing a majority of the Village Board of Trustees.
“A possible majority sweep is something current trustees tried to avoid earlier in 2022, when they voted unanimously to extend their terms from two to three years and stagger trustee seat elections in a way that would ensure a new majority could never be elected in a single year,” continued Gallaher. “We stopped their efforts by forcing a public referendum. Rather than face a sure loss at the ballot box, our current trustees repealed their ordinance instead. We know they will try it again.”
A Better Mt. Pleasant is a non-partisan community organization. The candidate recruitment effort is not supported by any partisan political organization or campaign.
“We have talked with people who view themselves as conservative and progressive. What they have in common is a shared vision for the success of our village, not fealty to a political party.” Gallaher said, “We want to create a team that views residents as neighbors, not a nuisance.”
A Better Mt. Pleasant will offer advice and support for candidates.
“Many of us at A Better Mt. Pleasant have years of campaign experience which can be really helpful, especially for first-time candidates,” said Gallaher. “It’s a giant step into public service. We want to be as supportive and encouraging as we can for those willing to take that step forward.”
Candidates for local office can file their Campaign Registration form in early December, with all required forms due on January 3, 2023, in order to be placed on the April ballot.
“The process of running for office isn’t very difficult and we know our current trustees are vulnerable.” Gallaher continued, “Mount Pleasant voters are ready to put the failure of Foxconn behind them — and that begins at Village Hall.”
Mount Pleasant residents can find out more about running for village trustee in 2023 by contacting A Better Mt. Pleasant through email: email@example.com or through our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/abettermtpleasant.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel — September 1, 2022
By Corrinne Hess
RACINE -- Unrealistic, grandiose plans with a touch of greed is how panelists at a Foxconn town hall meeting described the last five years since the mega factory was announced.
Mount Pleasant, a bedroom community of Racine, was catapulted to international prominence in 2017 when the Taiwanese-based manufacturing company announced its plan to invest $10 billion and create 13,000 high-paying high-tech jobs there.
Foxconn has massively scaled back those plans and it is unknown what the company is doing in Mount Pleasant in the four buildings it has constructed.
Lawrence Tabak, the author of "Foxconned: Imaginary Jobs, Bulldozed Homes, and the Sacking of Local Government," said every economic developer is looking for the next Silicon Valley. That's what Mount Pleasant and Wisconsin hoped it was getting with Foxconn.
"Why did the Foxconn development encompass 3,000 plus acres, when the factory — even what they were envisioning from the start — could be built on a 10th of that land?" Tabak said. "There was a grandiose expectation for what could happen and the fact that it didn't happen shouldn't surprise anyone who studies economic development."
Tabak was joined by Kathleen Gallagher, executive director of 5 Lakes Institute and a columnist for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; State Rep. Gordon Hintz, D-Oshkosh, and David Merriman, a professor of urban planning at the University of Illinois Chicago.
Kelly Gallaher, whose group, A Better Mount Pleasant, sponsored the event, said she did so because residents' questions were not being answered by village officials.
About 130 people attended the Wednesday night event at Gateway Technical College in Racine.
Gallaher invited the entire Mount Pleasant Village Board, Village Administrator Maureen Murphy; Mark Hogan, who helped forge the deal that brought Foxconn Technology Group to Wisconsin when he was the head of the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp.; Jenny Trick, executive director of the Racine County Economic Development Corp.; Tim Sheehy, president of the MMAC; and Claude Lois, who is Mount Pleasant's contracted consultant for the Foxconn project.
None of them replied or attended, Gallaher said.
Sheehy said the invite was disingenuous.
“ I was invited after the date was set, the panel was set, and it had been publicly announced," Sheehy said. "That’s fine, but it’s not an invitation, it’s an afterthought."
The audience had an opportunity to ask questions, which fell into two categories: Lois and Foxconn's obligation to pay Mount Pleasant.
Lois was hired in 2017 to manage the Foxconn project. He's an employee of Milwaukee-based engineering firm Kapur & Associates, but the village pays for his time.
Last year, the village board extended the contract with Kapur for Lois' work by two years and his pay was raised to $175 per hour. That amount is set to increase Aug. 21 to $200 per hour.
Lois served as the mayor of Burlington for four terms before deciding not to run again in 2008. After leaving the mayor's seat, Lois took a job as a division administrator for the Wisconsin Department of Revenue managing the state’s shared revenue program during former Gov. Scott Walker’s administration.
Merriman said most communities hire a consultant to manage a project, especially one like Foxconn, with such a large public investment.
In an interview, Merriman said it is unusual that a national search wasn't done before Lois was chosen.
More:Mount Pleasant continues to pay millions for Foxconn-related vendors; one politically tied consultant is paid $28K per month
Town hall audience members had questions about Lois' compensation and duties with the village. Tabak, who devoted a chapter of his book to Lois, said there are a lot of questions surrounding his work with the village.
"It's really frustrating because a lot of questions that I knew we would get tonight are questions that need to be answered by the public authorities and the professionals that are working at Village Hall, they are not here to answer those," Tabak said.
Foxconn's obligation to pay Village officials have continued to defend the Foxconn project and the money they continue to spend saying the costs will be recouped.
Bills are paid using a $911 million special taxing district created by the village of Mount Pleasant and Racine County to pay for the local portion of the Foxconn project including land acquisition and infrastructure upgrades.
Foxconn is Racine County's biggest taxpayer, coming in at about $9.1 million in 2021. That is scheduled to jump to $30 million a year in January 2024. Mount Pleasant needs that money, considering its Foxconn-related debt is more than 500% of the village's operating revenue.
According to the contract, Foxconn should have about $1.4 billion worth of value with the village, producing $28 million in tax increment.
At this time, Foxconn's value is $11.5 million, which means it has to make the village whole, or beginning next year, face a penalty, said Hintz, who also serves on the state's economic development board.
Hintz believes Foxconn will follow through — if not, the company will lose its rights to develop further. He said the problem is that the village, and Foxconn, have not been transparent.
"If you are going to take taxpayer money, you have to be transparent and you have to be accountable," Hintz said. "If the company had said, 'you know what? there isn't a market for LCD panels, the labor costs are too high here, can't compete, we need to reimagine something, maybe people would have said OK, let's figure it out. Instead, they continue to just gaslight, and lie."
Gallagher isn't as confident Foxconn will follow through on any promises.
"The financial burden is on large part on the locals, who are carrying the debt and whose homes were torn down, the issue going forward is what happens if Foxconn doesn't make that tax payment, Mount Pleasant is bankrupt," Gallagher said. "Who is answering that question? Is Foxconn answering?"
More:Property owners near Foxconn say they were misled. Now their homes are gone.
Merriman, who has studied tax incremental financing since the 1980s, said it doesn't seem like it's in Foxconn's interest to continue making payments to the village.
"We don't know what will happen — people can tell you they know, but they don't," Merriman said.
"The basic question is, is the community better off than it was before? The burden hasn't fallen on the community, but the risk has. If Foxconn decides to default, Mount Pleasant is not in a good space."
Corrinne Hess can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @corrihess
On Tuesday, May 24, 2022, Racine County Judge Jon Fredrickson ordered a lawsuit filed by Mount Pleasant Village Attorney Chris Smith, against Kelly Gallaher, a resident and vocal critic of the Foxconn development, to be dismissed with prejudice, after Smith said a comment made by Gallaher on social media had caused him emotional distress and was defamatory.
Judge Fredrickson ruled that the Village Attorney was a public official who had not met the threshold for proving actual malice. The judge also ruled that Gallaher’s statement was not defamatory, and she had done her due diligence in trying to determine the facts from the source — who was Smith. Saying to him, "The individual accused of defamation did the research. You didn't take the time to clarify with her."
During the hearing, Judge Fredrickson questioned Smith’s complaint and response brief at length, in which Smith misquoted his own statement made in his official capacity as Village Attorney to local media. A quote that was at the heart of the lawsuit, which he swore was true and accurate.
“Why am I looking at someone suing for defamation that doesn’t have their quote correct in their pleadings?” Judge Fredrickson said, “Right out of the gate here, we’ve got an issue . . . I have concerns about the veracity of the complaint and your due diligence in filing your own statement . . . I don’t have a lot of confidence, Attorney Smith, that you know whether it’s right or not even sitting here today . . . [T]hat due diligence, in my view, should have been done before you signed your name on that pleading.”
“Village Attorney Chris Smith’s lawsuit against me rightly failed on merit,” said Gallaher. “Judge Fredrickson found there was no defamation and no malice. But this case was not designed to win. This was a textbook SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) suit filed to intimidate and silence me at significant personal cost. It was a message to me and everyone else engaging in public debate that village officials view as critical or negative.”
After the hearing, Smith told the Racine Journal Times that he did not file the lawsuit to silence Gallaher, saying "No, not at all."
However, in a list of conditions sent to Gallaher days before filing the lawsuit, Smith insisted that Gallaher “refrain from publicly referencing [him] in any comment, regardless of whether such comment is written or spoken,” or Smith would “quickly proceed with a lawsuit against [Gallaher] and seek damages for the harm [she has] caused my professional reputation.”
“Chris Smith’s intentional and outrageous demand that I never say or write his name — or face legal action — disqualifies him to serve as a public official in our community.” Gallaher continued, “No resident can be assured that they too will not become the focus of a bogus lawsuit with Smith at Village Hall. Every citizen has the constitutional right to criticize their government without fear of retaliation.”
On May 24th, Village Attorney Smith told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that he was “satisfied” with Fredrickson’s decision and to be spared “having to go through a lengthy court process,” but Smith actually requested twice during the hearing to be allowed by Judge Fredrickson to amend his complaint against Gallaher, presumably to make the case continue longer.
Gallaher was represented by the Arlington based non-profit public policy law firm the Institute for Justice at no cost, whose mission is to end widespread abuse of governmental power and to protect constitutional rights.
“Had I not secured high-powered, cutting edge lawyers willing to represent me for free, this poorly written, frivolous suit could have easily cost me thousands of dollars — perhaps tens of thousands — in legal fees to just get through the initial court hearing,” said Gallaher. “That represents money dedicated to my daughter’s college tuition, or to my mother’s residential memory care. If anyone would know how much a case like this could cost me personally, it would be Chris Smith. That was the point. But not every resident is so lucky.”
To date, Wisconsin has not joined thirty-two other states and the District of Columbia who have passed anti-SLAPP legislation which discourage retaliatory and expensive defamation lawsuits like Smith’s. Gallaher says passing this legislation is long overdue.
“Without anti-SLAPP legislation in Wisconsin, there will be another Chris Smith,” Gallaher said. “Hopefully, this victory serves to put every public official on notice that they cannot abuse their authority and silence public debate.”
A Better Mt. Pleasant calls upon the Village of Mount Pleasant Board of Trustees and Village Administration to remove Attorney Chris Smith from his position as Village Attorney immediately.
Authority figures sometimes try to control speech, but I was not prepared for the demand letter I received in Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin. The village attorney ordered me not to say his name or face legal action.
“You will refrain from publicly referencing me in any comment, regardless of whether such comment is written or spoken,” he told me in March. If I ignored this decree, He Who Must Not Be Named threatened me with a defamation lawsuit.
Compliance would mean I no longer could function effectively as spokeswoman for A Better Mt. Pleasant, a grassroots organization that seeks to hold public officials accountable. Entire topics would be off limits. I could not even raise questions about the village attorney’s salary, which I help fund as a taxpayer.
Rather than submit, I took strength from former U.S. States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. “It took me quite a long time to develop a voice, and now that I have it, I am not going to be silent,” she once famously said.
I take this message to heart in my work as a community advocate and activist. So I will speak the two forbidden words: Christopher Smith.
Among the rights enshrined in the Constitution, freedom to criticize the government is among the most sacred. Citizens can face consequences if they defame a public official, but only if they show “actual malice.” The distinction is important.
Smith misunderstands the term. He characterizes my history of activism as evidence of malice because I often criticize local officials. “Gallaher has a pattern of practice of consistently portraying Village employees and officials in a negative light,” he alleges in court documents.
The ancient Greeks executed Socrates for similar reasons. Yet the First Amendment works differently in modern America. Actual malice occurs only when citizens intentionally defame someone with reckless disregard for the truth.
I did not. I accused Smith of lying to the media about a rushed decision to extend Village Board terms from two years to three years. But I did not make the allegation until after careful review of public records provided by Smith himself, which I summarized accurately.
Smith said discussions on extending term lengths began in 2018, but the first public mention of the topic did not occur until April 2021. Smith maintains that earlier discussions had occurred off the record, which he says makes his statement to the media true. But he made this claim in the midst of public complaints—including from me—that the policy change had been dropped on the public without warning.
Private discussions would be irrelevant in this context because the public cannot respond to proposals they do not know exist. The suggestion that Mount Pleasant gave residents ample time to speak up was false. So I accused Smith of lying.
No defamation occurred with malice or otherwise, but Smith sued me anyway—partly because I continued to say his name. His lawsuit lacks merit, but public officials do not need a court victory to chill speech. Merely filing a lawsuit against an underfunded opponent constitutes a form of retaliation, regardless of the outcome, because citizens must pay to defend themselves.
Smith is not the first person to weaponize the judicial system in this manner. The practice is so common that policymakers have given it a name: Strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPP). The message to anyone on the receiving end of a SLAPP is clear: “If you try to stop us, if you embarrass us, if you criticize us—it will cost you. Your speech will never be free.”
I am fortunate because the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm, is representing me without charge. But other Wisconsinites are not so lucky.
State lawmakers can protect them from government bullies by passing anti-SLAPP legislation. The Uniform Law Commission provides a model bill called the Public Expression Protection Act. When adopted, the measure provides an avenue for quick, low-cost dismissal of frivolous defamation claims.
Overall, 32 states and Washington, D.C., have anti-SLAPP laws. But Wisconsin is not on the list. Public officials in the Badger State can continue to intimidate critics who would hold them accountable.
Wisconsin must join these other states, so citizens can say without fear: “Now that we have a voice, we are not going to be silent.”
Kelly Gallaher is the spokeswoman for A Better Mt. Pleasant.
Kelly Gallaher Is Being Sued For Criticizing Her Local Government
Kelly Gallaher is a community activist in the small village of Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin. Long interested in politics, she became focused on her local government in the midst of the debate over the now-failed Foxconn development in Mount Pleasant. And she has stayed active: She speaks out at meetings of the local Board of Trustees, circulates petitions and sometimes criticizes her government in the local paper. It’s the last one that has landed her in trouble.
The trouble started when the Board of Trustees voted to extend their terms in office from two years to three. Kelly thought this proposal was a power grab and was frustrated that it came out of nowhere, so she and some friends started gathering signatures for a ballot initiative to undo the local change. They were quickly successful, gathering signatures and momentum as people expressed distaste for the sudden shift in the rules.
The controversy caught local attention, and a local news story quoted the village attorney. Painting a very different picture from Kelly, who had been saying the change was sudden, the village attorney told the paper that “discussion of [the change] began back in 2018.” But Kelly—who is the sort of person who both goes to meetings and pays attention—knew that was wrong. She would have remembered if it had been discussed. To confirm her suspicions, she sent Smith an open-records request asking for all records of these discussions.
He responded with village council agendas for three meetings—one in 2021 and two in January 2022. Kelly didn’t think those agendas made clear that term extensions were on the table—the 2021 meeting agenda just said “Village Government Orientation and Strategic Planning Update”—and, in any event, none of them was from anywhere close to 2018. So she followed up, asking for more support for the village attorney’s quote to the newspaper. A week later, she asked again. And the village attorney told her that was it: “This subject matter was not discussed at a public meeting within that timeframe, other than the 4/19/21 meeting previously discussed.”
For Kelly, that was enough. She emailed the reporters who had quoted the village attorney, attaching the emails from her open-records request and claiming that Smith lied when he said the village had been discussing the term-extension since 2018. She repeated the sentiments (screenshotting her email) in posts on Facebook and Twitter.
Within a few hours of Kelly’s posts going live, the village attorney threatened to sue Kelly. Claiming that Kelly’s statements were “false and defamatory,” he said he’d sue her for harming his reputation if she did not immediately retract her statements. Kelly did not particularly want to retract. After all, she was in the midst of an important political fight, and she had been perfectly honest—there were not any public discussions of the term limit fight in 2018 and suggesting otherwise was lying.
But Kelly is not a lawyer and didn’t want to have to pay a lawyer to deal with whatever the village attorney might do to her. Between that and the fact that she was dealing with her mother’s failing health—her mother was moved to hospice care that same week—Kelly was frightened and not interested in facing a courtroom battle. And so she did as she was commanded: She posted retractions to her social-media accounts and emailed the newspaper to retract her previous email.
Even though she sent the retractions, she did not stop her criticisms. In fact, she dug up an audio recording of that 2021 meeting where the term extensions had first been discussed, which she thought reflected poorly on the village attorney, and sent them to the local public-radio station, which promptly ran a story quoting Kelly.
In the midst of all this, and despite Kelly’s complying with his demands and retracting her statements, the village attorney sued her anyway. In his lawsuit, Smith claims he has suffered “emotional distress” from being criticized in public and asks the court to force Kelly to pay him actual and punitive damages for the harm to his reputation as an attorney.
The First Amendment Protects the Right to Criticize the Government
Chris Smith’s frivolous lawsuit is almost certain to fail. Under the Supreme Court’s 1964 decision in New York Times v. Sullivan, the First Amendment’s protections for free speech prohibit “public officials” like Smith from winning defamation claims unless they can show a false statement was made with “actual malice.” “Actual malice” in this sense doesn’t just mean with generalized ill will—instead, it requires a public-official plaintiff like Smith to show not only that a statement was false, but that a defendant intentionally lied or was at least grossly reckless about the truth.
But nothing Kelly said was even false. She interpreted Chris Smith’s statement to the newspaper as an assertion that there had been public discussions of the term-length change as far back as 2018. And there hadn’t been any—Chris Smith’s own emails proved that there had been no public discussions in 2018 (or 2019 or 2020). And saying something that isn’t true is lying.
For his part, Smith doesn’t seem to think Kelly was lying. He just thinks she misinterpreted his statement: When he said there had been discussions of the issue as far back as 2018, he says, he didn’t mean public discussions. He just meant private discussions. Maybe. (One might wonder why “we have been discussing this in secret for years” is a relevant thing to say in the context of a debate about whether the change was dropped on the public with insufficient notice, but maybe.) Even if Smith is right, though, this sort of semantic dispute just isn’t the stuff of which defamation claims are made. Kelly made clear why she thought he was lying by showing reporters the open-records emails that she said contradicted his statements. If he disagreed, he was free to explain himself to reporters in his own right. Simply put, fights about what somebody said in the newspaper belong in the newspaper—not in court.
The Process Is the Punishment
Filing meritless lawsuits might seem like a funny way to protect one’s “reputation” as an attorney. But frequently, plaintiffs in lawsuits like this do not need to win in court to achieve their goals. Ordinary people threatened with lawsuits will frequently respond just as Kelly did here, by being frightened and saying whatever they need to say to get themselves out of trouble. Or by simply shutting up. If that happens, a censorious plaintiff wins—no matter what happens in court.
This intimidation effect may explain why defamation suits like this one are so common, despite being legally weak. An Ohio mayor sued local citizens for their social-media criticism of his job performance. West Virginia politician Don Blankenship sued dozens of people for calling him a “felon,” when in fact he was sentenced to a year in prison after being convicted of a charge that was only a misdemeanor. Former Representative Devin Nunes unsuccessfully sued over a Twitter account that pretended to be a cow belonging to his family.
Some states, recognizing the huge costs that baseless defamation suits can impose on free speech, have passed laws restricting so-called “strategic lawsuits against public participation” (SLAPP).These laws, called anti-SLAPP laws, make it easier to get defamation suits thrown out of court early, and they even allow successful defendants to force plaintiffs to pay for the cost of defending the suit. According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, as of June 2021, 31 states and the District of Columbia have passed some form of anti-SLAPP law. Wisconsin is not one of them. There has been pressure for the state to adopt one—the Uniform Law Commission, a nonpartisan multi-state legislative association to which Wisconsin is a member, has drafted a model anti-SLAPP law that it urges its members to adopt—but thus far Wisconsin legislators have failed to reform their state’s laws.
But there is pressure from the courts as well. Many legal scholars—including Justice Clarence Thomas and D.C. Circuit Court Judge Laurence Silberman—have publicly questioned whether current laws are too protective of defamation defendants. They have urged the courts to reconsider the Supreme Court precedents and argue that the courts should allow far more defamation lawsuits than they currently do.
Cases like Kelly’s, though, show that First Amendment protections remain essential. The absolute most that can be said about her dispute with Chris Smith is that it comes down to a question of interpretation. She thought his statement to the newspaper meant that there had been public discussions of the term-length change as early as 2018. That statement is a lie. Smith, apparently, contends that he meant there had been secret discussions in 2018—and that statement, perhaps, is true. But disputes like this are the classic and appropriate subject of political debate, not courtroom factfinding—and certainly not the subject of enormous damage awards. If political arguments like Kelly’s are not protected, then no one can engage in political debate without risking financial ruin.
Fortunately, Kelly’s speech is protected. But, because Wisconsin has no anti-SLAPP law on the books, it could cost her tens of thousands of dollars just to prove that. That is why she has joined with the Institute for Justice to ask the courts to throw out Smith’s suit and vindicate the basic rights of Wisconsonites and Americans more generally to criticize their own government.
The Litigation Team
The litigation team consists of IJ Senior Attorney Robert McNamara and IJ Law & Liberty Fellow James Knight, as well as Andrew Erlandson and Stephen Hurley of the Wisconsin law firm Hurley Burish, S.C., which is serving as local counsel.
The Institute for Justice
Founded in 1991, the Institute for Justice is the national law firm for liberty and the nation’s leading defender of property rights, educational choice, economic liberty and free speech. IJ’s defense of free speech has previously helped vindicate the right to speak without being subject to baseless lawsuits in places ranging from Texas to Tennessee to Colorado.
Reprinted from: ij.org/case/wisconsin-slapp/
I have been a resident of Mount Pleasant for nearly 30 years, and the spokeswoman for A Better Mt. Pleasant—a local community watchdog group—for the past six years.
In February, 2022, A Better Mt. Pleasant helped to organize a petition to stop a village ordinance intended to lengthen the terms in office for Mount Pleasant Village Trustees from two to three years. This ordinance was proposed by Village Attorney Chris Smith, who is on record saying it was something he felt "very strongly" about.
If successful, the petition would have required a referendum vote first before it could take effect.
By all accounts, including in local media, we were succeeding far ahead of our goal to collect twelve hundred signatures to trigger a referendum. The village attorney’s pet proposal seemed destined to fail.
In early March, in the midst of literally petitioning my local government, Mount Pleasant Village Attorney Chris Smith filed a lawsuit against me, claiming I had defamed him on social media regarding his comments to the press about the ordinance.
My criticism of the Village Attorney was measured and correct. However, wishing to avoid a financially devastating lawsuit, I complied with Chris Smith’s conditions to remove the online post.
He sued me anyway.
This is a classic example of a SLAPP suit — strategic lawsuit against public participation. SLAPP suits are designed not necessarily to win, but to intimidate and silence members of the public by drawing them into expensive and often lengthy litigation in retaliation for speech against matters of public importance. Defamation cases are one of the most common tactics used in baseless SLAPP suits brought by public officials — like a village attorney.
Aside from the cost of a lawsuit to me personally, which is scary enough, the effect SLAPP suits have on those who have not yet been targeted is to avoid being sued through a reluctance to participate in public debate. To chill free speech and eliminate criticism. I have a right to criticize my local government and local officials, so do you. This lawsuit is not just retaliation against me, it is a message to every resident in Mount Pleasant to shut up or else.
Local government officials cannot use frivolous lawsuits to intimidate their critics into silence.
Within days of being served with the lawsuit, the Institute for Justice, a national public interest law firm specializing in litigation to protect constitutional rights, agreed to represent me. A motion to dismiss Chris Smith’s frivolous lawsuit was filed today in Racine County, which can be read here.
I wish to thank my legal team at the Institute for Justice, who work diligently to ensure that the right to free speech and public debate is vigorously protected, and that no citizen is victimized by government officials who abuse their authority.
Much has been written and said about the Foxconn development project since it was first announced nearly three years ago. Industry experts were rightly suspicious of the promises Foxconn made, as well as the unprecedented incentives offered by the state to win what appeared to many as a project that was always too good to be true, famously first penned on the back of a napkin.
Three years later, the project is on hold. Whatever Foxconn does intend to build is twenty times smaller than what was contractually promised, and offers no hope of a supply chain that will ever result in 13,000 full time jobs.
While WEDC has tried to encourage Foxconn to sit down and adjust a contract which has clearly been broken, Mount Pleasant has continued to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to prepare land and infrastructure for a factory that is not happening.
Why didn’t they slow down when it was clear, years ago, that things were not going as planned?
Because, even while gripped by a delusion that everything was fine, they knew the hundreds of millions of dollars spent was guaranteed, in part, by the State of Wisconsin. Mount Pleasant is on target to spend nearly $1 billion, and the state will cover $400 million if Foxconn defaults.
The money Mount Pleasant has spent, and is still spending, is not just a local concern. Every taxpayer in the state should demand accountability for this failure in judgement and oversight.
This spring, in response to national protests over the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, Gannett, the largest newspaper company in the U.S., announced it would end the practice of publishing mugshot galleries which disproportionately target people of color who have not yet been found guilty of a crime. Gannett said that mugshot galleries presented without context may feed into negative stereotypes and are of limited news value.
Unfortunately, the Journal Times is not owned by Gannett. In a city which has been ranked as the second worst to live for African Americans in the U.S., the Journal Times publishes mugshot galleries almost daily as of late. Of the five Wisconsin newspapers owned by parent company Lee Enterprises, the Journal Times is the only one that still does.
Mugshot galleries generate pageviews to satisfy advertisers. The long lasting damage they cause is real. Most importantly, mugshot galleries are not a replacement for news stories which inform and keep communities safe.
It is time for the Journal Times to take responsibility and join the rest of our state’s newspapers and end this practice.
A recent Journal Times article touted the opening of Tivoli Green “market rate” apartments in Mount Pleasant.
According to the article, the approximately $60 million investment was generated by “private investors” and two lending banks.
Missing from the list of project funders was the $9.8 million in cash incentives from TID funds that were provided by the Village of Mount Pleasant. Funds that were “negotiated” after developer Wangard threatened to abandon the project.
TID funds are like a credit card used to help create development in a defined area, most often in the form of roads and utility infrastructure. They are not meant to offset direct investment costs of private developers like Wangard.
In their hurry to rush through a housing project, Mount Pleasant continued its practice of funding private development with public dollars.
The immediate benefit of most development is to generate property tax revenue. But Tivoli Green must first pay back the TID before it will ever generate revenue that pays for municipal services like the road repairs the village needs — services the village now says will require a countywide sales tax to help cover.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent and borrowed to benefit private corporations and developers in Mount Pleasant and the village credit card is maxed-out.
It’s time for you to pay for their mistakes, it’s a shame the JT doesn’t tell their readers the full story.