Muzzled pro-life sidewalk counselors free to speak
Appeals court throws out charter school’s claim that protesters disrupted its operations
Pro-lifers who protested the construction of a Planned Parenthood facility next to a Washington, D.C., school scored a win in court yesterday. A federal appeals court overruled a decision that allowed the school to sue to stop sidewalk counselors from protesting in a public space between the abortion center and the school.
Two Rivers Public Charter School claimed in its 2015 complaint that counselors held graphic signs of aborted babies and shouted at students and parents entering the campus. Liberty Counsel attorney Mat Staver, who represented Larry Cirignano, said his client held only a sign with standard pro-life language to raise awareness about abortion: “[The court] took everything the school said as an assumption and even based on that assumption concluded unanimously that they didn’t have the right to bring the case.”
In Thursday’s ruling, a unanimous three-judge panel sent Two Rivers’ case back to the U.S. District Court, directing it to dismiss it. District Judge Eric T. Washington, a Clinton appointee, found that while parents of minor students may be able to sue protesters, the school lacked standing to sue on their behalf because it had suffered no injury. Washington acknowledged that parents might be hesitant to sue but said they were capable of doing so, noting minors’ names are automatically redacted from the records. “They should be the ones to bring the case, not Two Rivers,” he wrote. Washington also found the school would not have succeeded on the merits of its claim that the protests disrupted school operations and threatened its funding.
Planned Parenthood’s abortion center, whose construction has since been completed, is across a public alley from Two Rivers’ elementary school campus and across the street from its middle school campus. Attorney John Garza, who represented protester Jonathan Darnel, accused the school of making its case by “trotting out already-born children” in an attempt to sway the court, reported the website Rewire News Group in 2016. “It makes me wonder why Planned Parenthood has not wanted to move next to all schools,” Garza said.
Abortion centers routinely attract both protesters and sidewalk counselors, often leading cities to impose so-called “bubble zones” around entrances. Such restrictions have met with mixed results. In October 2019, a federal appeals court upheld a 15-foot buffer zone outside Pittsburgh abortion facilities but said it did not prohibit peaceful, one-on-one conversations. In 2014, the Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts law that banned anyone from standing in a 35-foot buffer zone outside abortion facilities, ruling that state or local governments must demonstrate they made an attempt to use the least restrictive means to address problems when free speech is involved.
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