Finger fight gets hearing

A federal judge heard testimony Monday morning on a Denham Springs woman’s request for a preliminary injunction forbidding city authorities from interfering with her right to show a rooftop light display in the shape of two hands flipping their middle fingers.

But the case was left unresolved as the two sides met in chambers with U.S. District Judge James J. Brady in Baton Rouge later in the day. The judge set a new date for testimony as the two sides continue settlement negotiations, according to one of the attorneys representing Sarah Childs in her suit against the city.

“The judge set a new date for a full day of testimony — Jan. 14,” said Justin P. Harrison, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana and one of the attorneys representing Childs.

Scott D. Huffstetler, an attorney representing the city, would not say anything, except: “We don’t comment on pending litigation.”

In testimony Monday, Denham Springs Police Officer Jared Kreamer repeatedly told ACLU attorney Ronald L. Wilson that he did not recall threatening on Dec. 15 to arrest Childs if she did not remove the light display from her roof.

Kreamer testified he went to her residence in response to her complaint of alleged harassment by neighbors she believed had made false allegations about her to police officers.

“I don’t recall … threatening her in any shape or form,” Kreamer repeated. “I may have advised her that she should take them (lights) down.”

But Wilson played a portion of a cellphone recording Childs made of the exchange, and Kreamer was heard asking Childs if she realized retention of her light display might mean, “I’m going to have to take you to jail, right?”

“I didn’t recall that,” Kreamer then testified.

Huffstetler then questioned Kreamer.

“Were you threatening to take her to jail over the middle-finger display?” Huffstetler asked.

“Absolutely not,” replied Kreamer. “I asked: ‘Why not take them down if you’re having all these problems?’ ”

Kreamer added that he returned to Childs’ residence on Jan. 3 in response to a complaint she made of alleged text-message harassment by two other women.

Huffstetler played part of a recording Kreamer made of that conversation with his cellphone.

“This is why the finger’s on the roof, because of this woman at that house,” Childs said on that recording.

A neighborhood dispute between Childs, also known as Sarah Henderson, and several neighbors became visibly public in late November, when Childs placed the first of her lighted middle-finger gestures on her roof.

“I thought a neighbor stole my dog,” Childs testified Monday.

Police Chief Scott Jones said on Nov. 26 that he had sent an officer to Childs’ residence on Starlite Drive and that the officer talked her into removing the display.

Childs said the same day that she removed the display from her roof during a rain storm after the officer mentioned the possibility of a fine ranging from $300 to $400.

On Nov. 27, the ACLU advised city officials that Childs had simply made use of her constitutionally protected right of free speech.

On Dec. 20, the ACLU Foundation of Louisiana filed suit on Childs’ behalf in Baton Rouge federal court. And Brady issued a temporary restraining order that forbade Denham Springs officials from penalizing her for reviving her display.

Childs alleges that after she returned to her roof and set up two middle-finger displays on Dec. 14, neighbors filed complaints with the police against her that led to citations for such things as “obstructing the flow of traffic,” “disturbing the peace” and “simple assault” — the last because of an impromptu song about the dispute the neighbors said included obscenities directed at them.

The lighted gestures were returned to Childs’ roof the same afternoon that Brady issued his restraining order to Denham Springs officials last month.

“The lights are still up,” Harrison told Brady on Monday. “She intends to keep them up, your honor.”

If Brady grants Childs a preliminary injunction, city officials will not be able to take action against her for the light display while her civil suit progresses through the federal system.