Judge: Middle finger display can go back on roof

A Baton Rouge federal judge granted a temporary restraining order Thursday to prohibit Denham Springs officials from interfering with a woman’s right to adorn her roof with a lighted image of a giant hand with its middle finger extended.

U.S. District Judge James J. Brady has scheduled a hearing in the case for Jan. 7. The woman, Sarah Childs, said in November that the lights were intended for neighbors with whom she’s had a yearlong disagreement over personal matters.

“I’m happy that Sarah Childs has the right to return her holiday lights to her roof,” Justin P. Harrison, an attorney with the ACLU Foundation of Louisiana, said after Brady’s ruling. “I believe that display is already back up.”

The ACLU filed the suit Thursday on behalf of Childs, who also is known as Sarah Henderson.

Since late November, Denham Springs police officers have gone to Childs’ Starlite Drive residence at least twice, according to the woman’s civil suit against the city.

On one occasion, Childs said in the suit, she was threatened with a fine if she didn’t remove the display from her rooftop. More recently, Childs alleged, she was threatened with arrest after she returned the display to its perch on Dec. 14. That display contained two images of hands extending their middle fingers.

Since then, according to Childs’ suit, neighbors complained to city officials that she walked down the street in a manner that was too close to traffic. Childs said city officials ticketed her for “obstructing the flow of traffic.”

Childs said in her suit that neighbors also complained to city officials that she sang and danced in her driveway and “made up an impromptu song about her neighborhood dispute.” Childs was then was ticketed “for disturbing the peace,” according to the lawsuit.

When neighbors alleged that the impromptu song contained obscenities directed at them, she was cited “for simple assault,” the suit said.

Childs said in the suit that she called the Denham Springs Police Department and complained “that her neighbors were making false allegations about her.”

The suit alleges that an officer then appeared at Child’s residence and “told her to take the lights down or she would go to jail.” Childs said in her suit that she “climbed onto the roof and removed the lights” as the officer watched.

In his order Thursday, Brady told Denham Springs officials that Childs “has demonstrated a likelihood of succeeding in her argument that this infringement” violates her constitutionally guaranteed rights to free speech.

Denham Springs City Attorney Paeton Burkett said city officials would not discuss the case Thursday.

“Right now, there’s just no comment,” Burkett said. “Probably next week, we’ll have more to say.”

Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana, said in written statement Thursday: “We are gratified that (Sarah Childs) can express herself as the law permits without further risk of interference by the police. This is a victory for the First Amendment and for the rule of law.”

Esman said the case is about protecting law-abiding people from police overreaching.

“In a free society, we cannot allow law enforcement to invent ways to coerce people into conforming to their neighbors’ tastes or desires,” Esman said. “In fact, the police have a duty to protect the rights of dissenters, and the City of Denham Springs has failed in that obligation to Sarah Childs.”

Harrison said, in reference to the series of citations Childs received on unrelated matters after erecting her light display in November, “the city also does not have the right to retaliate against Ms. Childs collaterally for conduct it could not prohibit directly.”

The temporary restraining order Brady issued Thursday permits Childs to return her display to her roof immediately, Harrison said.