Abortion opponent: City attacking First Amendment

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-114789132121491.jpg’, ‘Photo provided’, ‘Abortion opponent Kevin Rilott said vandalism and the city’s Public Works Department got in the way of their anti-abortion message, painted on a bus bench at the intersection of Summit and State streets’);

Alleging freedom of speech is under attack in Rockford, resident and abortion opponent Kevin Rilott claims city officials pressured Cicero-based Wright Advertising to remove a sign Rilott and fellow abortion opponents commissioned.

Rilott said he can’t ignore the situation.

“If we don’t do something, they’ll keep taking our rights,” Rilott said.

The sign, in big red letters, read: “Abortion kills children.” It sat across from Swedish-American Health System at the intersection of Summit and State streets.

Rilott said he and his fellow abortion opponents wanted to send the health care organization’s administration a message about the hiring practices.

According to Rilott, Dr. Dennis Christensen—Madison, Wis.’s sole abortion provider—has joined Swedish-American’s staff. A hospital spokesman confirmed Rilott’s claim.

Rilott said vandalism and the city’s Public Works Department got in the way of their anti-abortion message.

The city department sent Wright Advertising a letter April 21: “As owners of the property where the bench is located, we, the City of Rockford, cannot allow any political statement that may be construed as our opinion of the subject matter, whether in favor or against,” Engineering Technician Catherine LaRosa wrote.

LaRosa also said the group’s message wasn’t considered advertising and expressed concern about the sign’s condition.

But City Attorney Kerry Partridge sent an April 28 letter, aiming to clarify the city’s position. Despite the letter’s wording, he dispelled any notion the city was trying to silence the abortion opponents.

“The City of Rockford has no objection to the message on the bench,” he said.

According to the April 28 letter, Section 26-146 of city code states, “no bench shall carry any immoral picture or profane, vulgar or obscene word.” Partridge stated the bench contained none of the latter.

He also addressed, in the letter, LaRosa’s definition of advertising. Partridge stated her definition differs from the legal one.

Partridge made that clear in a second letter to Wright Advertising, which was intended to sidestep a potential First Amendment issue. He noted the bench’s message would be considered advertising in the legal sense. Partridge stressed, in the second letter, the city’s only concern was the sign’s appearance: “Please let this letter serve to inform you that the City of Rockford’s objection to this bench is limited to the fact that it was not ‘well-painted.’”

Partridge said the group could replace the sign, if it’s been restored.

“It’s got to look nice,” Partridge said.

Rilott said the sign had been vandalized about 15 times since March. He said vandals covered the message with spray paint and added vulgar language. According to Rilott, he repainted the message and covered the language with posters espousing anti-abortion views. He said it was meant to be a temporary fix.

In response to whether the group was being punished for being vandalized, Partridge had this to say: “It’s pretty hard for the city to catch vandals.”

But Rilott stressed the Rockford Police Department had been very helpful, allowing him to put a Crimestoppers decal on the bench, to garner information about the acts of vandalism.

Rilott alleged the city’s April 21 letter prompted Wright Advertising to remove the sign—without informing him. He said he tried contacting the company, but it never returned his calls.

Wright Advertising President Ralph Pontrelli said he was unaware Rilott ever called. But Pontrelli said he’d been warned the sign could be removed.

“He was told in advance,” Pontrelli said.

The city’s letter, Pontrelli said, only cemented his reason for removing the sign.

“I had already decided to send the money (back),” Pontrelli said.

He said he’d suspended a company policy based on Rilott’s assurance the sign would be maintained. According to Pontrelli, Wright Advertising stopped producing signs in support of or against abortion about six years ago.

“No matter what the ad is, they keep damaging the bench,” he said.

Pontrelli said the company went against another company policy—maintaining the sign itself. Rilott promised to maintain the sign himself. Pontrelli said the company was both unhappy and confused about the job he did.

The sign was laminated, Pontrelli said. So, Rilott could have just wiped off the graffiti.

From the May 17-23, 2006, issue

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