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Mayor's opponent sues city over order to remove web link

An American woman who was ordered by her city's mayor to remove a link to that city's police department from her website has sued the mayor and the city for violation of her rights to free speech.17 Sep 2008

Jennifer Reisinger was the owner of a web design business in Sheboygan in Wisconsin and a political activist who had called for the recall of Mayor Juan Perez and created a website to support the campaign for his recall.

Separately, a link existed on her business website to the Sheboygan police department's website, a link her suit describes as 'non-descript'.

The City Attorney for Sheboygan wrote to Reisinger in 2007 demanding that the link be removed.

"The City has not authorized this connection to its Police Department website, and we wish to have the link severed until such time as the City were to give authorization," wrote City Attorney Stephen McLean to Reisinger.

Reisinger removed the link but on later consultation with a lawyer reinstated it and has now sued the City of Sheboygan.

Her suit claims that McLean had already given advice to Mayor Perez that said that Reisinger was entitled to publish the link. "Anyone can create a link to someone else’s website very easily without the knowledge or consent of the linked party," it quoted McLean as advising in an email. The suit also claims that McLean had checked and found that the City itself did not ask permission for the links published on its own sites.

"However, City Attorney McLean indicated that, nonetheless, he could issue a “cease and desist” letter to Ms. Reisinger, if the Mayor so desired," claims the suit. "In response to that email, Mary Rajer, Assistant to the Mayor, indicated that Mayor Perez, in his official capacity, wanted City Attorney McLean to issue a cease and desist letter regarding the link Ms. Reisinger had on her business website to the City of Sheboygan Police Department."

After removing the link Reisinger said that she received a phone call from an investigation officer from the police department saying that he was conducting an investigation into the link.

When Reisinger employed a lawyer the request to refrain from linking and police investigation were dropped, her suit said.

Her suit claims that the actions were retaliation for Reisinger's political activity. "The combined retaliatory actions taken against Ms. Reisinger by the City of Sheboygan and by Mayor Perez, personally and in his official capacity as Mayor, were a willful, wanton and intentional disregard of her constitutional rights, designed to punish Ms. Reisinger for her past and present political activity involving Mayor Perez, and to cause her public humiliation and ridicule, making punitive damages against the defendants in their individual capacities appropriate and necessary to stop these repeated patterns from occurring," said the suit. The suit claims damages of $250,000.

The ability to link from one site to others is the basic building block of the World Wide Web, but the right of sites to link to content has been challenged a number of times.

It is rare for the owners of sites to try to prevent others from linking to them. More common are attempts to stop a site linking to material that a party considers damaging.

Earlier this year the French courts ruled that blogs committed an invasion of actor Olivier Martinez's privacy when they posted links to articles which invaded his privacy.

More commonly, disputes centre on the release of information which a party wants to suppress or links to copyright-infringing material. Though courts in the US have found that publishing links to infringing material is not in itself copyright infringement, they have found that it contributes to it.

A court found in 2000 in a case involving Ticketmaster that providing links to copyright infringing material could count as contributory copyright infringement.

In the UK a man was arrested last year over the publication of a website which published links to copyright-infringing television content. Intellectual property expert Kim Walker of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM, said at the time that it would be difficult, though not impossible, to charge the man with a criminal offence.

"We don't have an offence in the UK for facilitation of copyright infringement," said Walker. "Instead, it is possible that prosecutors could attempt to characterise this as an offence of 'distributing' infringing copies or 'communicating' copies to the public in the course of a business."