Gianelli’s Drive-Thru in Prairie Grove and its manager have sued the village of Prairie Grove, alleging that the village violated their First Amendment rights when it ticketed the restaurant for flying American flags on its property.
The citations – one for not meeting village setback requirements and another requiring American flags to be on permanent flagpoles – were dismissed in adjudicatory court earlier this month.
The tickets had resulted in a handful of protests in support of Gianelli’s. Then, after the story had been picked up by national outlets, it led flood of angry phone calls and emails to Village Hall, including death threats and people saying they were going to burn down Prairie Grove, according to the village president and police chief.
The lawsuit is the latest turn in a long-standing feud between Gianelli’s, located at 3111 Route 176, and the village of Prairie Grove over its temporary sign ordinance, which manager Terry Trobiani has said is unfriendly to businesses in town.
Prairie Grove officials have maintained that the version of events Trobiani is publishing is a “distorted version of what happened” and that their issue has always been with the placement of the American flags on Route 176, not the flags themselves.
“The American flag is a symbol of our freedom, democracy and the liberties we hold dear,” the village said in an almost three-page news release issued in July. “For that reason, the village upholds its high standards and requires all U.S. flags to be flown from permanent flag poles or staffs.”
Attempts to reach Village President David Underwood and Village Administrator Mike Freese Thursday were not successful.
The complaint, filed last week, argues that “flying the American flag and many other flags,” such as the Gadsen “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, has been a long-established expression of speech and that the village’s ordinance restricting how the flag is flown violates the First Amendment.
“(I)t requires a fee to obtain a permit to establish a permanent flag pole to fly any flag,” Gianelli’s and Trobiani argue in the complaint. “(I)t is also violative of the first amendment because it dictates the manner in which a person may fly any flag, including the American Flag.”
The village issued Gianelli’s two tickets, each for a $100, in July after Trobiani put American flags in the grass outside the establishment.
Underwood confirmed in an email to the Northwest Herald earlier in the week that the tickets were dismissed after the business came into compliance with the village’s ordinance.
One of the tickets was for the flags not being set back a minimum of 15 feet from the property line, and another citation said the flags must be on a permanent flagpole.
In the lawsuit, Gianelli’s and Trobiani dispute that the flags were not at least 15 feet from the property line.
Calling the ordinance a “prior restraint on speech,” the lawsuit argues that there is no rational relationship between it and the “health, safety and welfare” of village residents.
The lawsuit also alleges that the village has been applying its sign ordinance, adopted in 2005, in “a discriminatory manner,” because it allows real estate agents to post temporary A-frame signs for open houses but does not allow Gianelli’s to also use A-frame signs.
“The village of Prairie Grove is a predominantly residential community with high aesthetic standards, including reasonable regulations of temporary signage,” the village said in the July release.
Attempts to reach Trobiani and his attorney, Rob Hanlon, were unsuccessful Thursday.
Gianelli’s is now asking for preliminary and permanent injunctions prohibiting the village from enforcing its municipal code regarding flag displays, as well as compensation for damages and attorney fees.
“The village is vehemently supportive of all its businesses,” the village said in its previous news release. “It is disappointing and offensive that a business manager would present such a blatantly distorted version of the facts to the public, rallying others under a false pretense of a violation of freedom of speech and using the symbol of our democracy as a tool in a twisted ploy to further his own commercial interest in displaying temporary signage.”