MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Dane County health officials didn't violate free-speech protections when they cited a Middleton, Wis., cafe for advertising itself as a "mask-free zone" during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, a federal appeals court ruled.

Helbachs Cafe posted a sign in July 2020 saying the shop was a "mask-free zone" in defiance of a county mask mandate. The county cited the cafe three times for failing to comply with the mandate and the shop eventually lost its lease.

Helbachs responded with a lawsuit alleging the county retaliated against the cafe for exercising free-speech rights. A three-judge panel from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Aug. 15 that to prove the county had retaliated over the sign, the cafe had to show a pattern of such retaliation against other businesses.

The cafe failed to produce any evidence suggesting that, the judges found.

The cafe's attorney, listed in online court records as Brent Eisberner, has not responded to an email seeking comment.

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