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Judge: Banning
antigay banners is not free speech violation

Judge: Banning
antigay banners is not free speech violation

A Wisconsin minister's free speech rights were not violated when Madison police told him to remove antigay banners from highway overpasses, a federal judge ruled. U.S. district judge John Shabaz told the Reverend Ralph Ovadal of Monroe, chairman of Wisconsin Christians United, that testimony in the trial of his lawsuit against the city showed that the "spectacle" created by the banners on September 2, 2003, created a traffic hazard by causing traffic to slow.

"But there is nothing that suggests it was the message" that caused the dangerous slowdown or caused police to ask demonstrators to leave, Shabaz said Monday. "There's no evidence to suggest it was the message. None whatsoever. People were asked to leave [the overpasses] only because of the narrow circumstances.... You can't do it at rush hour. It isn't the message we [motorists] don't like, it's the fact that we can't get home on time."

Ovadal said it was likely he would appeal. "The bottom line is, based on traffic congestion caused by a minor accident up the road, and based on angry reactions to our message, we were banned from sharing our message. I believe the appeals court will see that," he said. "I think the city very skillfully manipulated the facts."

Shabaz had previously denied a temporary injunction that would have barred Madison police from ordering the removal of the banners. The judge said such a move would have prevented police from ensuring public safety. But the seventh U.S. circuit court of appeals in Chicago ruled in July that Ovadal had a constitutional right to display banners on the overpasses, despite the reactions of drivers who caused traffic problems.

Judge Michael Kanne said in writing for the three-judge panel that, although homosexuality is a contentious issue, unpopular speech is protected by the First Amendment. The Madison city council has since adopted an ordinance banning any display of banners or signs on the overpasses, other than traffic signs. The ordinance is effective January 1. The case was sent back to Shabaz. Kanne told the trial court to explore whether the ban on Ovadal was narrowly tailored and content-neutral and whether anyone else with a different message would have been barred from doing the same thing. (AP)

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