LANSING, Mich. (WLNS) – A husband and wife podcasting team has been ordered by Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope to stop using the city’s logo – or face legal action.
The logo is nebulous – it’s on City Hall, sewer lids and more. Sporting the capitol dome and a sunbeam, its bright cheerful image was adopted by resolution of City Council Oc. 17, 1994.
Michael and Erica Lynn are podcasters for the ‘Merica 20 to Life podcast. They think residents should adopt a ballot initiative to create a Charter Commission to rewrite and rework the city’s foundational document. Their advocacy included the use of the city’s logo in a meme encouraging a ‘yes’ vote – and it landed them in hot water.
“This feels harassing to us,” Michael Lynn tells 6 News, “and this is obviously something that we do, is speak on governmental issues. We brought a lot of things to light. We’ve opened a lot of doors that they probably didn’t want open.”
In addition to challenging the city with the podcast, Michael sued the city of Lansing for racial discrimination in federal court.
Just over a year ago, he prevailed against the city with the federal jury awarding him $1 million. His advocacy against racial discrimination and the city has been a constant since 2020.
But it wasn’t until earlier this month the city took action with a “cease and desist” letter.
Lynn declined to make the post in question available to 6 News, expressing concern he could face more legal stress from the city. But the graphic he made sported the official city of Lansing logo, with the phrase: “Nov. 7th, Vote yes on the Charter General Revision, Our Time Is Now.” And the graphic included the ‘Merica 20 to Life logo as well.
He argues his use is protected by the First Amendment. “It wasn’t surprising because the city is always like sticking their foot in stuff like this,” he says. “They don’t understand the Constitution, that’s obvious.”
Lansing City Clerk Chris Swope signed the letter. It says the clerk is responsible for how the seal is used and cracking down on any non-approved use related to elections. Such uses are “inappropriate and risk confusing the residents of the city of Lansing,” he wrote in his letter.
“Someone could see that symbol and think the city is advocating for one vote, yes, no, or for a candidate,” Swope says. “You know, we have had issues with candidates, so we try to maintain control of that.”
Lynn vehemently disagrees with Swope’s perception.
Nancy Costello runs the Michigan State University First Amendment Law Clinic. She reviewed the documents related to the letter and the controversy and said using the logo in an election context could create a legal battle.
“Taking the city seal suggests the city endorses what they are putting forth and advocating for,” Costello tells 6 News, “and number 1, the city doesn’t necessarily endorse it nor should the city be endorsing something like that.”
The Lynn’s had their attorney respond to the city’s cease and desist order.
Dear Mr. Swope:
I represent Merica20toLife regarding the “cease and desist” letter you sent to Michael and Erica Lynn on October 25, 2023, attached. In this letter, you, a City of Lansing elected official, violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by attempting to silence my clients’ free speech. I was shocked but, honestly, secretly pleased to see you making absurd legal threats in the letter; most people in positions like yours wisely leave the lawyering to the lawyers so that people like me who try to find reasons to sue governments as a hobby don’t have any extra ammunition.
I am attaching a letter sent from the ACLU of Michigan to the City of Ann Arbor in 2018 on the question of whether government bodies may enact or enforce ordinances which limit citizens’ use of governmental seals. As the ACLU details far better than I could, such actions are a clear First Amendment violation; further, the City of Lansing ordinance upon which you rely in your letter is unlawful. Given that your most recent post on X, attached, is a retweet of an ACLU national post emphasizing the importance of the First Amendment, I assume you respect and will comply with the ACLU’s legal analysis.
I therefore write to demand that you cease and desist from demanding that my clients cease and desist from exercising their constitutionally protected free speech rights. Should you continue to pursue this course of action, I will relish the opportunity to file an absolute slam dunk of a First Amendment lawsuit against the City of Lansing on Merica20toLife’s behalf.
Very truly yours,
ABDNOUR WEIKER, L.L.P.
Is/ Elizabeth K. Abdnour