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Police investigating posters reported as hate speech

October 1, 2019 GMT

SCOTTSBLUFF — Two local women who are part of a local advocacy group have reported finding posters that they classify as hate speech.

Two members of the Panhandle Equality group report finding a poster that touched off a series of events that culminated with the discovery of an inflammatory poster in Scottsbluff and Gering neighborhoods on Monday.

Ladessa Heimboch and Megan Koppenhafer both serve as board members of Panhandle Equality, an organization that advocates for people in the LGBTQ+ community. Heimboch is president of the organization and Koppenhafer is vice president.

On Monday, Sept. 16, the women told the Star-Herald, a member of the group had been en route to work when he reported seeing posters in a Scottsbluff neighborhood, with the words “Defend Morality” and an image of a couple holding an umbrella over their two children. According to a reverse image search, a similar poster had been used on the Instagram page of a group touting “Heterosexual Pride Month,” and depicts a couple holding an umbrella and shielding their children from rainbow colors, often associated with gay pride, from raining down.

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“We don’t know why those posters showed up,” Heimboch said.

The posters were in a tight radius, so they speculate that persons may live in the area, but weren’t aware of any events that precipitated the posting of the original poster.

On Tuesday, Sept. 17, Heimboch and her wife responded and removed the posters, which Heimboch says were posted in an area between Second and Fourth Avenues and from 24th Street to 27th Street. Heimboch reported finding eight of the posters. In a response formulated by the Panhandle Equality board, Heimboch posted 20 posters on Sunday, Sept. 29 within the same area, urging readers to “Help us fight bigotry and hatred” and listing the organization’s information.

By early Monday morning, Sept. 30, Koppenhafer reports having discovered another round of posters depicting the image of a couple and umbrella, this time with the phrase “Defend Decency.” She found the posters as she looked to check on the posters that Heimboch had posted.

However, she also reported finding another more inflammatory poster. The second poster used a disparaging label for homosexuals and cited false statistics about homosexuals and sexually transmitted diseases. The poster contained the biohazard sign. Similar posters are cited on the Internet as having circulated in Florida, Australia, and other areas.

Koppenhafer and Heimbouch removed the posters. Koppenhafer took the posters to the Scottsbluff Police Department, while Heimboch contacted police by phone. Later, Heimboch also reported finding the “Defend Morality” posters in her Gering neighborhood, which she said were directly across the street from her home. She believed that the posters being posted in her neighborhood were directly targeted at her.

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“My fear is someone in the community is trying to incite violence,” Koppenhafer said. “This is very antagonistic,” she said as she pointed to the second poster.

Scottsbluff Police Cpl. Matt Herbel responded and is investigating the group’s report in Scottsbluff. However, Herbel said, initial indications are that the posters may be protected speech. Scottsbluff Police Chief Kevin Spencer said the department would consult with prosecutors in the case.

“There is no threats being made, no violence,” Herbel said. “It is a disagreement on a sensitive subject matter, at this point.”

The person or persons responsible for the first and third poster are not known. Reports from persons other than those associated with the Panhandle Equality organization had not been made to police. A Star-Herald reporter knocked on doors and visited with people walking in the area and none of the people in that area reported having seen the posters or being aware of them. Heimboch speculated that was because her group had acted quickly in removing them.

Heimboch feels the posters should be classified as a hate crime. In many states, she said, attacks on groups based on gender identity and sexual orientation is classified as hate speech.

“‘Stop the (slur)’ implies you want to eliminate people,” she said. “When I read this, this is a threat to me. A threat to our life, as human beings. Also, these (pointing to the STD claims in the biohazard flier) implies that LGBTQ+ persons and families are not moral people. When you put them all together, it implies that we are not moral, not decent people and feeds into a lot of stereotypes that people have about the LGBTQ+ community. Otherwise, why would you be shielding your children from LGBTQ+ people?”

Distribution of fliers is prohibited by city ordinance, Herbel said. City ordinance does allow for the temporary posting of fliers, such as garage sale fliers, but they must be removed in a specified amount of time.

Heimbouch and Koppenhafer had also reported being told similar posters had been found in the Chadron area. However, Lt. Rick Hickstein of the Chadron Police Department said his agency has not received any reports of such posters in the area. The department did take a recent report of anti-immigration posters in the area.

In a press release, the Panhandle Equality organization urged the person who posted the posters to “reach out to us for a discussion about how we can move forward and support everyone in our community and love everyone regardless of their sexuality, their race, their gender, their disabilities or any other facet of their humanity.”