Court Restricts Pro-Lifers Who Carry Graphic Signs
SAN DIEGO—Is Sylvia Sullivan a terrorist? A new lawsuit accuses her and six other pro-life picketers of being a “nuisance” to abortion clinic workers and causing them “emotional distress” — by displaying pictures of aborted children on picket signs.
The $2.5 million lawsuit seeks redress for the “nuisance” and “emotional distress” the women caused by displaying pictures of aborted babies at a San Diego Planned Parenthood clinic last March.
“They don't have the right to show those grossly distorted pictures to other people's children or to shove literature into people's faces who don't want to read it,” said Planned Parenthood attorney James McElroy.
“These hard-core folks think they have the right because they think they are God and everyone else is evil,” he told the Register. “At the heart of this case is the fact that these people think they have the right to impose in other people's rights.”
So far, all three San Diego judges involved with the case have lined up behind McElroy. Two judges have approved temporary restraining orders against the picketers, and San Diego Superior Court Judge Judith McConnell has ruled that no photographic signs larger than 8 1/2 by 10 inches may be displayed within 100 yards of the abortion facility. She further banned the distribution of any literature closer than 25 feet from the driveway and ruled that protesters must stand at least three feet from each other at all times.
In her ruling, McConnell stated that she intended to protect workers and those going in and out of the Planned Parenthood clinic from seeing the large photographic signs depicting aborted babies. Picketers say this has effectively created a large no-free-speech-zone in front of the clinic and around its driveway.
Defense attorney Katie Short says that McConnell has outstripped her constitutional boundaries as a jurist.
“These San Diego courts aren't even trying to follow the law,” Short told the Register. “By arguing that people inside clinics shouldn't have to see [graphic] signs she is opening up a whole new frontier of law.”
Short said that if the appeals court upholds McConnell's decision, then McConnell will have effectively written her own law, ignoring First Amendment protections of free speech. She said that restricting speech on the basis of its content is doubly unconstitutional.
“The most offensive thing about the ruling is the content-based restrictions,” Short said. “This runs contrary to what has been described as the most fundamental principle of the First Amendment — the government may not restrict speech based in its content. It's what the amendment is all about.”
Referring to the restrictions on sign size, Short said that no court in the country had ever made such an order.
Short also objected to the issuance of restraining orders to the protesters. She said the orders were served without any prior notification, calling this “contrary to explicit California court rules … the defendants had no notice or opportunity to defend their rights.”
Opinions about the usefulness of signs differ among pro-lifers. Some argue that images of aborted babies can be an effective way to educate women who are contemplating abortion. But graphic images can also serve as a barrier between protesters and the women they are trying to help.
But Sylvia Sullivan argues that the San Diego case presents a different case. With the way the clinic is situated, the only way protesters can communicate their message is by carrying signs for the clients to see as they drive by. Reducing the size of their signs, she said, effectively shuts their counseling work down.
“The clients and personnel think these signs are horrible,” Sullivan said. “We agree. We just think people should know what's going on in there.
“A few years ago people said, ‘Don't block the doors’; then they said, ‘Don't protest on street corners, go to the clinics’; now that's in jeopardy. Everyone who goes within 25 feet of the driveway or carries a sign larger than a sheet of notebook paper will be served with a restraining order and asked to leave.”
“This could be a very dangerous precedent if the court upholds this ruling,” Sullivan said, adding, “at this point, sidewalk counseling has been terminated.”
- October 24-30, 1999