U.S. District Judge James Brady heard testimony Monday about whether Sarah Childs should be granted a preliminary injunction, barring the city of Denham Springs and police from requiring her to remove the display. The judge didn't rule and the hearing will continue next week.
Childs says she put up the roof message in November because she believed a neighbor stole her dog. She says police threatened her with fines and arrest because of the lights. She and the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana sued the city, its mayor and police.
Lawyers for Denham Springs and police say officials didn't threaten Childs and the case has no merit. But they also argue the display isn't protected speech under the U.S. Constitution because the extended finger is designed to attack her neighbor.
Brady issued a temporary restraining order in mid-December, prohibiting city officials from interfering with the lights and saying efforts to prevent Childs from having the display would violate her rights to free speech and due process.
With the Christmas holidays wrapped up and many people packing up their holiday lights, the federal judge asked Monday if the lawsuit still was needed.
"Is this matter now moot? Are the lights still up?" he asked.
"The lights are still up,"
"And she intends to keep them up?" Brady asked.
"I think she intends to keep them up, your honor," Harrison replied.
According to the lawsuit, Childs removed the lights twice—once after a police officer told her she could be fined and again after another officer threatened to arrest her. But she's reinstalled them, after getting representation from the ACLU and the judge's temporary order was in her favor.
In Monday's testimony, Denham Springs police officer Jared Kreamer described two visits to Childs' home in response to complaints from Childs that her neighbors were harassing her.
Under initial questioning from Childs' lawyer, Kreamer said he didn't recall if he told her to take down the light display or told her she could go to jail because of it. He said he found the lights offensive and thought it could be considered disturbing the peace.
"I remember telling her if she didn't take it down, it could lead to trouble," the police officer said.
Then, Childs' lawyers played a partial recording that Childs had made with her cell phone during one conversation with Kreamer in which he told her she could end up in jail because of the lights. Kreamer said he wasn't threatening her, but was just advising her that she could run into a complaint by her neighbors accusing of her disturbing the peace.