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Web designer sues Brat City for assaulting hyperlink

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Last year, Jennifer Reisinger, a Web developer from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, received a letter from the city. It demanded that she cease and desist the publication of a hyperlink on her web site pointing to the home page for the Sheboygan Police Department.

Reisinger used the website in question - Brat City Web Design, so named in honor of the Bratwurst sausage that has brought Sheboygan fame - for her web design business, and it contained links to several other public agencies besides the police department. The cease-and-desist letter did not mention any of the other links besides the one for the police department, and Reisinger promptly removed the link from her site.

After she received a call from the Sheboygan Police informing her of a police investigation into the link's presence on her site, however, Reisinger retained an attorney, who advised her to reinstate the link immediately. The lawyer, Paul Bucher, also fired off letters to the city's mayor, police chief, and city attorney requesting documentation related to the affair, and a description of the legal basis the city felt it had in demanding the removal of the link.

The following day, the city informed Reisinger that it would refrain from pursuing any legal action against her, and the mayor apologized for the whole affair in a letter to the editor of the town's newspaper.

But that wasn't the end of the story. Last month, Reisinger filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the city, particularly the mayor, Juan Perez, sent the cease-and-desist letter in retaliation for her participation in a mayoral recall campaign. Her complaint requests a judicial declaration that the city violated her First Amendment rights, as well as $250,000 and punitive damages to be determined by a jury.

Reisinger might have a case. FindLaw columnist Anita Ramasastry, an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle, argues in a recent column that linking is generally protected under the First Amendment and points out that at least one federal court has agreed with that position.

While there are exceptions to this notion - discussed below - Reisinger's link to the Sheboygan police site does not seem to fall into any of them. She directed her visitors to the page for a government body meant to serve and protect the public, which is the exact sort of information-sharing that the First Amendment was established to protect.

Governments must have a compelling reason to curtail protected speech, and it doesn't appear that the City of Sheboygan had much reason to send the letter at all. Of course, the judge in the case could declare the case moot, since the city withdrew its cease-and-desist letter and never initiated any kind of formal prosecution or other legal action. So Reisinger may be in the right, but whether she gets any money or a judicial declaration in her favor remains to be seen.

Regardless of the outcome, Reisinger's case highlights the legal issues surrounding links on the Internet. Few courts have dealt directly with these issues, but the decisions that have come down illustrate the difficulties inherent in applying the law to linking.

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