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Lawsuit filed against GOP lawmaker who removed anti-Donald Trump sign

Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, has been sued for taking this sign from a Capitol entranceway on May 23.

A Capitol protester has filed a federal lawsuit against a Republican lawmaker who removed from the rotunda a permitted sign bashing President Donald Trump.

The lawsuit, filed by Donald Johnson, 80, a retired Madison Area Technical College instructor from Madison, seeks unspecified punitive damages from Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, for violating his First Amendment right to free speech.

In July, Kooyenga apologized for taking the unattended sign in an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal but said he wouldn’t apologize for “trying to uphold appropriate decorum” in the Capitol. He objected to the sign’s use of a mild oath.

The sign said “Scott Walker, Paul Ryan and many WI republican legislators support a corrupt, treasonous, health care wrecking, lying, incompetent, unethical, narcissistic, immoral, tax and draft-dodging, sadistic, racist, and confessed serial groper who thinks nothing about spending millions of taxpayer dollars for his golfing and luxury family vacations and even more billions for a senseless wall ... and so on and WE THE PEOPLE BE DAMNED!”

On May 23, Johnson reported to police the missing 30-inch-by-40-inch sign, for which he had a permit from the Department of Administration.

According to the lawsuit, a copy of the permit was attached to the back and a statement attached to the bottom front of the sign read: “Messing with ANY display is a felony. The Rotunda is under video surveillance.”

After reviewing surveillance footage that showed Kooyenga removing the sign, Capitol Police found it in his office.

A video of the incident was captured by a hidden camera in the Capitol. But the Department of Administration has denied Johnson’s and the Wisconsin State Journal’s requests for a copy of the footage, saying doing so could reveal the location of hidden cameras.

But in a separate incident from March 2015, Capitol Police provided video footage to the Freedom From Religion Foundation after that group’s rotunda display was stolen.

DOA spokesman Steven Michels said the footage of the 2015 incident was from a non-hidden rotunda camera.

Bill Lueders, president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, called the rationale for denying the record request “a garbage excuse.”

“What, exactly, would these clever records consumers do with this information: Not commit heinous crimes in these locations?” Lueders said. “It wouldn’t even make sense for them to commit these heinous crimes elsewhere, armed with this info, because they still wouldn’t know there wasn’t a hidden camera somewhere else.”

Kooyenga told police he intended to share the sign with the Department of Administration and that if he had another chance, he wouldn’t have taken it. He apologized to the police for taking the sign and said he wouldn’t do it again.

The lawsuit alleges Kooyenga took the sign “acting under color of state law.”

Capitol Police returned the $40 sign to Johnson, according to a police report.

Kooyenga has announced plans to run for the state Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Leah Vukmir, who is running for U.S. Senate. He did not respond to a request for comment.

State Journal reporter Molly Beck contributed to this report.


Matthew DeFour covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.