ACLU Supports Abortion Protester

CLEVELAND (AP) - Ohio's American Civil Liberties Union is supporting a preacher in his lawsuit against an Akron suburb that stopped him from protesting abortion during a parade.

The ACLU usually argues on the other side of the anti-abortion movement, fighting bans on a late-term abortion procedure and restrictive parental consent laws.

"But when it comes to free speech, we take all comers," Raymond Vasvari, legal director in the ACLU's Cleveland office, told The Plain Dealer.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati accepted a brief from the ACLU last week. A three-judge panel will hear the case in August.

The ACLU's action caught the preacher, Mark Tatton of Cuyahoga Falls, by surprise.

"I'm shocked, totally shocked," he told the newspaper.

His case began with a protest at the Cuyahoga Falls Memorial Day parade in 1999.

Tatton, who is aligned with the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, walked the parade route with a placard that displayed an enlarged full-color photo of an aborted fetus.

Officer Gregory Kenepp confiscated the sign and cited Tatton for disorderly conduct after some onlookers became angry. The charges were later dropped, and the sign was returned.

Kenepp said he was worried that Tatton would be beaten up. He filed a written statement in the federal appeals court calling the fetus poster "very graphic, offensive, disturbing and disgusting."

Tatton is seeking about $600,000 in damages, saying his right to protest was taken away.

Last year, U.S. District Judge James S. Gwin of Cleveland dismissed Tatton's suit without a trial. He said Kenepp did the right thing because the sign was offensive and Tatton had provoked intense hostility from crowds watching the parade.

The anti-abortion sign amounted to "fighting words" and wasn't protected, Gwin said.

The ACLU argues that the officer's action was much like what happened to civil-rights marchers in the South in the 1960s.

"This decision is truly dangerous because it allows the censorship of the mob enforced at the hands of the police," the ACLU said in its brief.

Cuyahoga Falls officials did not return calls for comment.

Tatton, 44, acknowledges he's a die-hard protester who likes to do more than talk. He says his goal is to stir up people with provocative signs tied to Christian religious beliefs.

He said that at a Barberton Labor Day parade in 1999, he was attacked by an onlooker brandishing a fire extinguisher.

This year, Tatton said, he'll start carrying a sign against Harry Potter books because he thinks they promote witchcraft.

"We may disagree with the sort of society Mr. Tatton would construct, but we support his right to say what he wants," Vasvari said.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)