Free Speech Advocates Cry Foul After Town Bans Overpass Signs For Safety

Protesters on a highway overpass near La Crosse
File: Protesters on a highway overpass near La Crosse Photo: Maureen McCollum / WPR News

Protesters who oppose President Obama have filed a federal lawsuit against a town near La Crosse, saying their rights to free speech and peaceful assembly on an interstate overpass are being violated.

In August, La Crosse-area residents started taking part in the national demonstration, “Overpasses for America.” They gathered on a pedestrian bridge over Interstate 90 in the town of Campbell, equipped with flags and signs, many calling for the president’s impeachment.

A couple months later, the town board passed an ordinance banning signs on and near bridges and overpasses. Violating the ordinance carries a $133 fine.

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Now, some of the protesters are suing the Town of Campbell and a couple police officers, saying the law is a direct attack on their beliefs.

Attorney Bernardo Cueto represents the plaintiffs. He says he wants the courts to repeal the ordinance. “It really opens it up for people of all viewpoints. It doesn’t have to be the Tea Party,” he said. “It could be the Greenpeace group, it could be the Democrats, it could be the communists: it doesn’t really matter.”

Cueto says the group should be allowed to demonstrate on public property.

Brent Smith is the Town of Campbell’s attorney and help draft the ordinance. He says the ordinance is not aimed at the Tea Party group, but rather is about safety.

“That right to free speech, that right to assemble is not an absolute right when there is a safety concern,” Smith said. “That’s what courts in our country have struggled with as long as our country has been here.”

Smith says the ordinance was based on a similar law on the books in Madison, which prohibits displaying signs on highway overpasses.