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Wisconsin appeals court upholds conviction of abortion protester

The Associated Press

03.15.00

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WAUSAU, Wis. — A state law that prohibited an anti-abortion protester from holding a large sign next to a highway does not violate free speech rights, a state appeals court has ruled.

Pastor Ralph Ovadal was convicted in Barron County Circuit Court for erecting a sign along U.S. Highway 8 near the Turtle Lake casino. Ovadal and a group of protesters were stationed along both sides of the highway with the pastor holding a 6-by-2-foot sign depicting an aborted fetus.

Authorities charged Ovadal under a public-safety law, claiming the sign created a hazard by blocking motorists' view as they tried to enter or leave the casino. Ovadal was ordered to pay a $96 fine in March 1999.

Ovadal appealed his conviction to the state's 3rd District Court of Appeals, claiming he was not in violation of the law because he was holding the sign rather than placing it in the ground. He also said the law violated free speech because some signs are permitted close to the roadway.

Yesterday, the appeals court disagreed and upheld Ovadal's conviction.

"He communicated his message by using a sign of size and in a placement calculated to inevitably distract the motoring public," the appeals court said. "By doing so, he obstructed motorists' view of peripheral traffic and thereby jeopardized public safety."

The appeals court also said the trial court was correct when it said the statue did not violate free speech because the state's purpose in enacting the law was public safety, not the content of any signs.

"As the trial court observed, broadly construing the statute to prohibit holding an 18 square-foot sign in place near the traveled portion of the highway effectuates the public safety concerns that (the statute) was intended to address," the appeals court said.

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