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Free Speech & ‘the Bird’|Prevail in Louisiana

BATON ROUGE (CN) - A Louisiana woman won her lawsuit against a well-to-do suburban town that twice ordered her to remove her rooftop-lights "holiday display" giving the middle-finger salute to her neighborhood.

A federal judge found that Sarah Childs' "holiday display" was protected speech.

Childs, aka Sarah Henderson, set u p the display after a tiff with her neighbors in Denham Springs.

Denham Springs, pop. 10,375, is 15 miles east of Baton Rouge. Its estimated median household income of $52,439 is 24.3 percent above the state average of $42,492, according to city-data.com. Denham Springs is 79.3 percent white.

Denham Springs police twice ordered Childs to take down her light display, so Childs sued the city, its Mayor Jimmy Durbin, Police Chief Scott Jones and police Officer Shawn Perkins.

U.S. Magistrate Judge James Brady ruled for Childs on Dec. 20, citing the First Amendment.

The holiday brouhaha began on Nov. 27, when Childs set up the lights in response to "an ongoing disagreement with her neighbors," according to the complaint.

The complaint does not describe the nature of the disagreement, but it says: "Plaintiff Sarah Childs installed on the roof of her house a string of holiday lights in the shape of a human hand with an extended middle finger.

"The display looked like this:" The complaint then features a color photo of the cheerful bird, which looks somewhat like a lit-up saguaro cactus.

The complaint then continues: "Several of Childs' neighbors complained directly to Mayor Durbin, and the Denham Springs Police Department shortly thereafter dispatched Corporal Shawn Perkins to the scene. Perkins told Childs to remove the lights, suggesting that if she did not, she would be in violation of Denham Springs' 'obscenity statute' and could be subject to a substantial fine.

"Perkins then attempted to remove some of the lights himself by pulling on a nearby strand, but relented after Childs complained that he might break them.

"Perkins finally told Childs that if she wanted to keep her display, it would have to be something less offensive.

"In response to Perkins' admonition and fearing a citation and fine, Childs removed the lights.

"It was later discovered that Denham Springs does not have an 'obscenity statute.'"

So, "On Thursday, December 14, 2012, Childs put the lights back up, modifying the display to include two hands, each with the middle finger extended," according to the complaint.

"The ACLU of Louisiana learned of the reinstallation and immediately sent a letter, attached hereto as P-2, to City Attorney Burkett, reminding the City that

Childs' display was protected by the First Amendment.

"Neighbors complained again, and the city again responded, first by collateral attack, issuing Childs a flurry of summonses not for her decorative lights, but for various other things the neighbors complained about.

"a. Neighbors alleged that Childs, while walking down the side of the street, did not get far enough out of the way of an oncoming car, so the City ticketed her for obstructing the flow of traffic.

"Neighbors alleged that Childs, while singing and dancing in her driveway - her own private property - made up an impromptu song about her neighborhood dispute, so the City ticketed her for disturbing the peace.

"c. Childs' impromptu song allegedly contained some obscenities directed at her neighbors, so the City cited her for simple assault.

"However, the City's retaliatory bullying failed, and Childs left her display up.

"Childs then called the police to complain that her neighbors were making false allegations about her.

" In response, Officer John Doe appeared at Childs' house; however, rather than take her complaint, Doe ordered Childs to take her lights down.

"Doe did not tell Childs what law she was violating or issue her a citation of any kind. He simply told her to take the lights down or she would go to jail."

Childs says she reluctantly "climbed onto the roof and removed the lights" while the officer watched. "However, she intends to install her display again and, if permitted, plans to keep them up for a long time," she said in the federal complaint.

Judge Brady on Thursday granted Child a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction, stating: "Defendants' continued efforts to prevent plaintiff from displaying her holiday lights will result in an infringement of plaintiff's rights of free speech and due process."

Childs wants the injunction made permanent, declaratory judgment "that defendants' actions were unconstitutional" and nominal damages and attorneys' fees.

A hearing has been set for Jan. 7.

Childs is represented by Justin P. Harrison with the ACLU of Louisiana, and Ronald L. Wilson, both of New Orleans.

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