ACLU Defends Rhode Island Store Owners Sued by Town Over Cow Statue

October 28, 2002 12:00 am

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PROVIDENCE, RI — The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today asked the Rhode Island Superior Court to bar a local town from enforcing a sign ordinance that is requiring the owners of a gift shop to pay more than $50,000 in fines for an outdoor art display of a cow statue. In an effort to recover the fines, the town recently sued the owners of the gift shop.

“For the town to single out the owners of one establishment and attempt to punish them for exercising their First Amendment rights is bad enough,” said Carolyn A. Mannis, an ACLU of Rhode Island volunteer attorney. “This lawsuit is clearly an attempt to bully the owners of the cow statue. The Bill of Rights is designed to protect against this type of behavior.”

Saying that the blue fiberglass cow, which was once part of the Cow Parade art exhibit in Houston, is a “portable sign” not authorized by the ordinance, the town in July issued a Notice of Violation threatening Emily Calandrelli and Gene Oberhauser, owners of the Imagine gift shop, with a $500 per day penalty if they did not remove the cow.

Calandrelli and Oberhauser were advised that if they wished to challenge the notice, they had to pay a $150 fee to appeal to the Zoning Board for a variance. Instead, they petitioned the Town Council to address the problem. Two weeks ago, the town responded to the petition by suing the owners. The town asked the court to impose over $50,000 in fines and additional attorneys fees against the storeowners, and require them to appeal the violation notice to the town’s Zoning Board.

“We brought the cow to Barrington so that people could enjoy it in the spirit of art, fun and community,” said Oberhauser. “The filing of a complaint seeking over $50,000 in fines is the last in a series of arrogant acts by a few public officials that cannot be tolerated. It has been stressful and worn us down some, but we will not sacrifice our principles, even if it means losing our business.”

In court papers filed today, the ACLU argued that each of these requests is improper and unauthorized by law. The ACLU is asking the court to issue an order declaring that the sign ordinance is a violation of the First Amendment and that the required payment of $150 to appeal the matter a violation of their due process rights. The ACLU is also asking the court to rule that the enforcement of the ordinance is a violation of the owners’ rights to equal protection of the law.

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