Seal of Disapproval
Ed Vielmetti has won the right to show Ann Arbor's city seal in an online encyclopedia.
by Patrick Dunn
From the March, 2019 issue
A longtime local techie, Vielmetti is a dedicated follower (and live-Tweeter) of city council meetings, and an equally dedicated investigator of city affairs; he once wrote a regular "FOIA Fridays" column on DamnArbor.com. He most recently took issue with an ordinance council adopted in July, asserting the seal was the city's "exclusive property" and establishing a fine of up to $10,000 for anyone who used it outside the conduct of city business without the mayor's approval.
The day the ordinance passed, Vielmetti added a caption to the image of the seal on ArborWiki (localwiki.org/ann-arbor/): "Not authorized by the City of Ann Arbor." Was he trying to preempt a legal challenge or make a sarcastic comment on the ordinance? "Maybe a little bit of both," he chuckles.
More provocatively, he sent mayor Christopher Taylor and city attorney Stephen Postema a link to an entry about the city seal on ArborWiki, an open-source encyclopedia on Ann Arbor to which Vielmetti regularly contributes. The entry contains a drolly humorous history of the seal and an image of it.
Senior assistant city attorney Matthew Rechtien fired back a cease-and-desist letter, demanding that he remove the "illicit content." Rechtien also sent a letter to LocalWiki, the San Francisco-based nonprofit that hosts ArborWiki and other similar sites, threatening a fine of up to $10,000 if the seal was not removed.
"I wonder if I could have avoided most of this by not saying anything, but there's a principle to the thing," Vielmetti says. "It seems absurd to have an encyclopedia be in violation of a local law."
After Vielmetti read Rechtien's letter aloud at a council meeting, he and LocalWiki both received letters from Mayor Taylor approving their use of the seal.
But the ordinance still rankled Vielmetti. He calls the provision allowing the mayor to sanction certain uses of the seal "completely bogus."
"It's not up to the mayor to make that decision," he says. "That's a straight-up First Amendment
right." Vielmetti reached out to the ACLU of Michigan, who agreed with him and sent the city a letter in November asserting the ordinance's unconstitutionality.
The city caved. In January, council adopted a heavily revised version that only forbids using the seal to give a false impression of city endorsement.
The ordinance's origins are unclear. Emails obtained by Vielmetti under a Freedom of Information Act request show that city administrator Howard Lazarus and other city officials were concerned about the citizen-led Ann Arbor Police Task Force's use of the seal last May. But Lazarus says internal discussions about use of the seal went back farther than that, to concerns over solar energy installer Geostellar's use of the seal on its website.
Lazarus says his main concern was avoiding false impressions of city endorsement, describing it as "good business practice." "If we were a private enterprise it would be protection of our brand," he says.
Vielmetti says he's not terribly surprised by the way the situation played out. "I just basically sent a link to a lawyer who had just drafted a law against this, and I'm not at all surprised that the city took the hard line that it did," he says. "If you're a new city attorney trying to make your mark, you probably have to try to defend the ordinance you just wrote."
He expresses a very reserved satisfaction with the resolution. "It feels like a victory in some sense but sort of a weird victory in that you wish you'd never had to have done it," he says.
"This particular case has not been a challenge to get people interested in because there's conflict and principles," he says. But the fact it fell to him to challenge the law highlights the city's shortage of professional watchdogs.
"I'm sure there's a whole bunch of less controversial but more impactful stuff that goes on at City Hall" that needs attention, he says. "I wish we were in a world where more people could make a living covering what's going on."
[Originally published in March, 2019.]
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