Last summer, when 74-year-old East Cleveland resident William Fambrough supported a challenger to East Cleveland’s incumbent mayor, Brandon King, he used a sound truck to broadcast campaign messages. But his political support resulted in serious personal and professional consequences: East Cleveland Police enforced obscure municipal ordinances against William that it never enforces against anyone else as a pretext for smothering his speech. They towed his truck, severely damaging it in the process. This retaliatory scheme flies in the face of the Constitution. Yesterday evening, William—represented by the Institute for Justice (IJ)—sued East Cleveland and its officials to vindicate his First Amendment rights and to hold city officials accountable.
“Government officials using the police to punish political opponents is a core violation of the First Amendment,” said IJ Attorney Ben Field. “Just as citizens must follow the law, the government must follow the Constitution.”
The East Cleveland Police Department’s campaign against William’s political speech began in May 2021, when an officer issued William a warning ticket for parking his step van at his home—even though William had parked his van there since he bought his home in 2006 without incident, and others in the city park similarly sized vehicles at home. In fact, a public records request shows no history of parking enforcement in the years leading up to the 2021 mayoral election.
William wanted to avoid possibly losing the ability to campaign for Juanita Gowdy’s mayoral bid with his step van, so he started parking it outside of the city whenever possible. The morning of August 18, he retrieved it since he planned to use it for a late-afternoon campaign event.
That was the last day William—and the Gowdy campaign—could communicate with its principal means of political messaging. That’s because when William, his daughter, Gowdy and her campaign manager were all perfectly able to drive the van away, the police towed the van. This was a peculiar application of public safety resources given East Cleveland’s comparatively high crime rates and the police department’s perennially short staffing.
“I want to win my case and prove that what happened here against me and Juanita was absolutely crazy,” William said. “I want the world to know what happened.”
The selective enforcement of odd ordinances did not stop with the parking ordinance. In that same police encounter, William was cited for violating a city noise ordinance, even though he had a permit signed by the police chief specifically to use a sound truck to campaign.
The city’s assistant law director, Heather McCuollough, who was handling the case, told William’s lawyer that although the city would normally not pursue minor issues like the noise complaint, in this case they might not be willing to resolve it unless William would “stand down.” The city attorney specifically cited as grievances William’s political speech. She further warned that William would not be treated as leniently in the future if he continued to cause problems “downtown” and said he needed to “mind his own business” going forward.
“In East Cleveland, just like in other cities throughout the country, the government acts as if it’s above the Constitution. But no government and no official is above the Constitution. It’s the fundamental law of the land,” said IJ Attorney Caroline Grace Brothers. “This lawsuit will help ensure that East Cleveland will not serve as a model for other governments that want to punish their political enemies.”
Despite the turmoil the East Cleveland government has put William through, he remains hopeful about the future of the city, and is staying to fight for it.
“I’m not one who badmouths my city. It’s poor, but it belongs to us, and we can dictate its future,” he said. “Not somebody else, we who live here and vote here can determine the future of East Cleveland.”