The state of Wyoming has settled a dispute over Christian and pro-life speech in a pedestrian tunnel by ordering that no one again can display a message on the public property.
The state admitted violating the U.S. Constitution by restricting the speech of a group in a forum that had carried numerous messages from the public. But it decided to resolve the issue by banning all public messages in the forum entirely, ADF said.
“Honoring free speech doesn’t come about by completely eliminating it,” said Jonathan Scruggs, who litigated the case along with ADF-allied attorney Nate Kellum.
“Although the [state] commissioners have done the right thing by recognizing that they violated the First Amendment rights of WyWatch members who simply wanted to display signs as others had been allowed to do, we disagree that the solution is to then shut everyone up so that you don’t have to allow pro-life speech anymore,” Scruggs said.
The results are part of a consent order reached between WyWatch Family Action and officials in the state.
The case developed after WyWatch asked the state for permission to post signs in a “walk by” space in the state’s Herschler Gallery, a long and wide tunnel between the state Capitol and the Herschler State Office Building nearby.
Rich Cathcart, executive secretary of the State Building Commission, which supervises state properties, approved the request.
So on Feb. 3, 2011, WyWatch Family Action chairman Becky Vandeberghe erected two signs, one depicting a living pre-born baby in the womb with a Bible verse. The other sign showed a picture of a group of individuals with the caption “We Regret Our Abortions.”
The signs were placed in advocacy for two pro-life bills before the legislature.
But Cathcart, who reported getting a number of “inflamed calls,” deemed the signs unacceptable and removed them the next morning because the pro-life message was outside the “generic stuff” that he alleged was approved.
The legal action was brought because the application process never specified any such limitation.
The court consent order specifies that “the parties agree, and the court accepts, that the … defendants unconstitutionally prevented plaintiff from engaging in protected expression in the Herschler Gallery in February 2011 by enforcing an unconstitutionally vague policy against the plaintiff and by enforcing that policy in such a way to discriminate against the viewpoint of plaintiff’s expression.”
The agreement states the state will pay the plaintiffs $1 in damages plus fees and litigation costs of about $30,000.
ADF said the state was skirting the logical requirement that such messages would be allowed in the future “by simply eliminating the right of any outside groups to engage in free speech activities in Herschler Gallery.”
The organization said the state, “rather than allow pro-life speech in the Herschler Gallery, adopted new rules that prohibit the public from engaging in free-speech activities in the gallery.”
“WyWatch Family Action’s board of directors is pleased that the state realizes that it infringed on our constitutionally protected freedom of speech and religion and that they admit their previous policy was unconstitutional,” said chairwoman Becky Vandeberghe.
“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.”
The Casper, Wyo., Star-Tribune reported in January that the speech ban was adopted to protect the tunnel’s function as a “protected and secure thoroughfare for foot traffic.”
Cindy Hill, superintendent of public instruction and a member of the state building commission, opposed the ban on free speech grounds.
But the report said various organizations for years had used the tunnel space to place exhibits that support bills in the legislature.