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Federal judge strikes down Michigan law barring depictions of violence

By The Associated Press

02.18.02

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LANSING, Mich. — A federal judge has barred enforcement of a century-old law that was cited by authorities in Kalamazoo to limit the use of graphic signs during anti-abortion protests.

U.S. District Court Judge David W. McKeague signed a permanent injunction on the statute Feb. 15 following an agreement between the Michigan Attorney General's office, Kalamazoo County Prosecutor Jim Gregart and attorneys at the Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor.

The law prohibits the public depiction of violence, the representation of murder or the display of the human form in an indecent way on signs.

It was cited by the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety after an Oct. 11 protest in front of the Planned Parenthood of South Central Michigan.

Officers told anti-abortion advocates Annelore Norton of Richland and Diane Roberts of Portage that they were violating the state statute with a graphic display of an aborted fetus. The women held a sign on a public sidewalk with a color photograph of a bloody, aborted female child's head being held by surgical equipment.

The sign upset a passerby who stopped and asked that it be taken down as nearby children passed on a school bus. Norton and Roberts refused, and the passerby struggled with one of the women and tore the sign.

The anti-abortion protesters called police, who later told them they were violating a state statute on public displays of signs.

In November, Norton filed a federal lawsuit asking that the statute be struck down on constitutionality issues. She named Michigan Attorney General Jennifer Granholm, Kalamazoo County Prosecutor James Gregart, Kalamazoo Chief Daniel Weston and two public safety officers.

Norton's attorney, Robert Muise of the Thomas More Law Center, said the ruling was a "tremendous victory" for Norton and her cause in Michigan. He feared enforcement of the statute would limit free speech.

"While some are critical of these signs, they have proven effective for Mrs. Norton, who has been told by several young mothers outside of the Planned Parenthood facility that they chose life for their unborn children because of the signs," said Muise.

As part of the consent judgment, the Michigan Attorney General's office has agreed to pay $1,500 for attorney fees and costs.

"We have no further comment," said Genna Gent, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Attorney General's office.

Randall Schau, an assistant Kalamazoo city attorney, said the consent agreement with the Attorney General's office and the Kalamazoo County Prosecutor's office allows Norton to resume her protests.

"Her ability to protest is now sound, yet she feels she is entitled to money," said Schau.

Weston said the city did not object to issues Norton had raised in her lawsuit. He said the city had to respond, but that it was also appropriate for the court to decide the constitutionality of the statute.

"We have a requirement and an obligation to enforce the laws," said Weston. "It's up to the court to interpret them; that's not within our purview to do so."

Related

Abortion foes file suit over ban on graphic signs
Great Falls, Mont., city attorney rescinded order a week after telling protesters to remove signs outside Planned Parenthood office.  08.23.01

ACLU backs abortion protester cited for graphic poster
Group files brief with 6th Circuit, saying lower court decision dismissing Ohio preacher's lawsuit 'allows the censorship of the mob enforced at the hands of the police.'  06.25.02

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