A First Amendment battle is brewing in Fluvanna County, Va, where a vote from the board of supervisors, minus Vice Chairman Shaun Kenney, has enacted a law to prevent citizens from using the image of their county seal on publications.
It all began when a local blogger, 23-year-old Bryan Rothamel who writes The FLUCO Blog, used the county seal on articles he wrote to keep the community updated about supervisor meetings, activities, and decisions. The problem, according to the supervisors, was that he didn't have permission to use the county seal to illustrate those posts and, they added, he was using the seal to "advertise his product."
To rememdy the problem, in September the board made it a Class 1 misdemeanor to violate the law punishable by up to 12 months in jail and/or a fine up to $2,500, noting that "[n]o person, entity or organization shall exhibit, display, or in any manner utilize the seal or any copy, replication, facsimile or representation of the seal, . . ., unless such use shall have been expressly authorized by the board of supervisors."
Kenney was the lone vote against the new law, according to Tasha Cates at the The Daily Progress:
[Kenney] said that he thinks the ordinance was a “remedial action” against the blogger for writing something that a supervisor didn’t agree with. “This seems like a simple First Amendment, slam dunk, common sense situation,” Kenney said. “I’m still appalled, with all of the other issues facing us in Fluvanna County, that somehow we chose to focus on this.”
Now Charlottesville's Rutherford Institute, a civil liberties organization, has come in to represent the blogger, filing a lawsuit on his behalf as noted by their president on the website:
"Criminalizing First Amendment activities is a grotesque violation of our constitutional right to free expression," said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute. "Government officials should know better. Such censorship has no place in a free society."
Was Mr. Rothamel singled out by the supervisors? Other news organizations routinely use the county seal when writing about Fluvanna.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch noted the controversy and had a suggestion for the Fluvanna Board of Supervisors:
A fitting restitution would include having the Fluvanna supervisors (Kenney excepted) attend a remedial class on free speech, and the government's responsibility toward it — which entails protection, not suppression.
Mr. Rothamel, through The Rutherford Institute, is asking that the new law be declared unconstitutional and a violation of the First Amendment, and that he receive compensation for damages and attorneys' fees. Meanwhile, first amendment supporters are watching this case as others join in to challenge Fluvanna County.