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State settles matter of relocated pro-life signs

Apr 6, 2012 - By Ben Neary, The Associated Press

CHEYENNE -- The State of Wyoming has admitted that state officials violated the constitutional rights of members of an anti-abortion group by removing a display of materials they posted last year in a tunnel leading to the state Capitol.

Under a settlement approved Thursday by U.S. District Judge Nancy Freudenthal, the state agreed to pay WyWatch Family Action $1 in nominal damages and $30,000 in attorney fees.

Rich Cathcart, head of the Wyoming State Building Commission, has said he ordered two WyWatch poster boards in the tunnel removed last year after receiving complaints. One poster featured a picture of an unborn fetus and the other a group of women saying that they regretted getting abortions.

Cathcart has said he decided the posters were unacceptable because they were graphic and shouldn't be viewed by children who pass through the area during the legislative session.

After WyWatch filed its lawsuit early this year, the State Building Commission, which includes Gov. Matt Mead and the other four statewide elected officials, enacted a new policy banning all public displays of materials in the tunnel area.

Becky Vandeberghe, chairman of WyWatch, said Thursday that her board of directors is pleased that the state recognizes that it infringed on members' constitutionally protected speech.

"It's sad that it took such drastic measures to bring that about, but it's even sadder that state officials decided to address the problem by stifling more free speech, not less," Vandeberghe said in a prepared statement.

Attempts to reach lawyers with the Wyoming Attorney General's Office for comment on the settlement were unsuccessful.

Freudenthal had allowed the American Civil Liberties Union of Wyoming to intervene on behalf of WyWatch.

Linda Burt, head of the ACLU in Wyoming, said Thursday the case was important in terms of protecting free speech rights.

"It was the right decision. We are also pleased to see this outcome," she said.

Jonathan Scruggs, a lawyer who represents WyWatch Family Action, said Thursday that the settlement should send a clear message to Wyoming officials.

"It says that the government can't discriminate against pro-life messages just because of the content of those messages," Scruggs said of the settlement.
 

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