Pro-Life demonstrators make First Amendment appeal to Supreme Court

Pro-life demonstrators, who were arrested at a Kansas City intersection in June 2001 because of the complaints of passers-by that their graphic signs of an aborted unborn child were offensive, are hoping, after losing a federal civil rights lawsuit against the Kansas City police in a district court and then an 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, that their First Amendment complaint will be heard by the Supreme Court.

In an interview with CNS News, Francis J. Manion, senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), who represent the demonstrators, said that "this is an important case involving the constitutional rights of those who oppose abortion to be able to speak out freely without being punished."

According to the ACLJ the 8th Circuit ruling contradicts precedents set by First Amendment rulings by the Supreme Court which protect offensive speech.

Manion said that the cops allowed the demonstrators to stay “if they put the offensive signs” away, even though the entire demonstration was legitimate: "What you had was the cops deciding, just at the behest of random passersby, what could or could not be said or displayed on that street corner. And that's clearly unconstitutional," he said.

He asserted that "the constitutional right to free speech lacks all vitality if it can be suppressed for so flimsy a reason as that the content of the message ... is distracting or disturbing to motorists… rare indeed is the [demonstration] that will not annoy and distract some passersby."

The police officers had "observed that traffic was heavy and was being affected by the demonstration," and then charged the demonstrators with violating regulations which say it is “unlawful for any person to ... stand ... either alone or in concert with others in a public place, in such a manner so as to [o]bstruct any public street, public highway." 

When the police dropped the charges, the demonstrators filed their lawsuit in which the district court decided that the officers "had reasonably interpreted the ordinance as prohibiting conduct that distracted motorists and thereby obstructed a public street by impeding the safe flow of traffic." The First Amendment "does not entitle citizens to create safety hazards," they said.

When the district court decision was upheld by the Appeals court, Judge C. Arlen Beam, saying that his colleages had created a  "heckler's veto" which allowed the government to restrict free speech because of someone’s objections to it, issued a dissenting opinion.

"The Constitution", said the Judge, “does not allow a small group of passersby to censor, through their complaints, the content of a peaceful, stationary protest," Beam stated in his dissent. "The First Amendment knows no heckler's veto, even in an abortion case."

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