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Congine, Village Crivitz Settle In Upside Down Flag Issue

According to news releases issued Thursday, Oct. 31, a case involving Vito Congine, Jr., the Village of Crivitz and display of an upside down flag has been settled, but details are not being released. Congine’s attorney, Chris Mueller, reportedly told a TV news station that terms of the settlement are confidential, but his client is pleased the matter has been resolved.

The issue began in 2008, when Congine began discussions with Crivitz Village Board about purchasing the former Pelkins Supermarket building in downtown Crivitz and converting it into an Italian Supper Club. Congine throughout the dispute has maintained the Village Board was at first very supportive, but then denied him the necessary liquor license after he had invested in the venture.

A 14-year veteran of the United States Marines, Congine began flying a United States flag upside down on the property at one of the main intersections in Crivitz. He explained at the time, and at later court proceedings, that an upside down flag is a universally recognized military symbol of distress, and he was flying it that way on his downtown Crivitz property to express distress over his treatment at the hands of the Crivitz Village Board.

The flag was flying upside down on July 4, 2009, while crowds were gathering for the big Fourth of July parade, but was taken down by authorities before the parade started and was returned on July 5.

Congine sued, saying his First Amendment free speech rights had been violated. Legal representatives for the village and Marinette County argued that the flag was taken to keep the peace during the Independence Day celebration.

Judge William Griesbach, in Green Bay’s Seventh Circuit of Wisconsin’s Eastern District Federal Court ruled on Tuesday, May 28, of this year, almost exactly four years after it became an issue in Crivitz, that Congine had a right to fly his United States flag upside down as a protest statement, and Crivitz police erred in confiscating the flag.

According to court documents, Crivitz Police Chief Mike Frievalt, after getting advice from Marinette County District Attorney Allen Brey, entered Congine’s property without a warrant and removed the flag. Frievalt maintained he had received many complaints from citizens, mainly members of the American Legion, and as the crowd gathered became afraid things would get out of control. He then, with the help of Officer Craig Kasten, removed the flag.

With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, Congine later brought a lawsuit against the village and Brey. Congine charged his Constitutional rights were violated. In the 21-page May 28 ruling, Judge Griesbach agreed, at least in part. He found that the village had violated Congine’s rights, but decreed that Brey, because he provided only advice, had qualified immunity from liability.

Judge Griesbach wrote: “The court thus concludes that even assuming the facts set forth by the defendants are true, the intrusion upon Congine’s protected speech was not justified under the circumstances of this case.”

In an interview after the Federal Court ruling in May, Congine said that he and his wife, Trudy, had spent over $100,000 to remodel the building in downtown Crivitz before the village board reversed its previous encouragement and denied them a license.

Eventually they lost everything in bankruptcy, Congine said. He told the Peshtigo Times they were living in Naples, Fla. and did not intend returning to Wisconsin.

Since the Federal Court ruling in May, attorneys have been working on a settlement for damages and attorney fees. Mueller filed a letter with the court Thursday indicating settlement had been reached, but said details are confidential.

Crivitz Village Clerk Marilyn Padgett said the matter was covered by the village’s insurance policy, but any further details would need to come from Andrew Jones, the insurance company’s attorney for the case. She said the matter was referred to the insurance carrier from the beginning and she has not received any official word as yet on settlement details.


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