SAN FRANCISCO – The first and fourth amendment rights of two pro-life activists were violated when law enforcement officers ordered them to remove their truck from an area near to a school and "unreasonably" detained them for too long, according to a federal appellate court ruling Wednesday.
Although the 7-by-20-foot truck displayed graphic photos of aborted fetuses, the government "cannot silence messages simply because they cause discomfort, fear or even anger," concluded the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.
"[T]he First Amendment does not permit a heckler's veto," the panel of three liberal judges added, referring to a concept which states that free speech cannot be limited based on listeners' reactions to the content.
On March 24, 2003, an employee and a volunteer of the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform drove the truck bearing large photographs of aborted fetuses around Dodson Middle School in Rancho Palos Verdes 30 minutes before classes began.
Assistant Principal Art Roberts told the trial court that he saw a number children express anger over the images and that he observed two or three girls crying.
Ten minutes before the start of classes, school officials contacted the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which dispatched two deputies, who stopped and searched the truck and another vehicle, then ordered the activists to leave the area, according to court documents.
The Center for Bio-Ethical Reform later filed suit, claiming that the pro-life activists' first amendment rights were violated and that the deputy sheriffs violated their fourth and fourteenth amendment rights by unreasonably detaining them for seventy-five minutes. They also contended that the deputy sheriff's had searched their vehicle without securing their consent.
In its ruling, the panel said they agreed that the seventy-five minute detention was "unreasonably long and therefore violated their Fourth Amendment rights."
"[T]he officers at no time had any reason to suspect that the Plaintiffs had committed or were about to commit this crime," the panel stated further.
They also unanimously ruled that school officials and sheriff's deputies violated the men's free speech rights by ordering them to leave the school's neighborhood, although they ruled that the individual deputies and school officials could not be held liable for the 1st Amendment violations because they are entitled to qualified immunity.
The latest ruling overturned an earlier district court judgment which upheld the school's and deputies' actions.
A lawyer for the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform called the ruling "a tremendous victory for the pro-life movement."
"The Ninth Circuit's decision affirms that there is no double standard for pro-life speech under our Constitution," attorney Robert Muise of the conservative Thomas More Law Center expressed in a statement.
"In its ruling, the Court upheld the fundamental principle of the First Amendment that government officials cannot prohibit silent, peaceful, non-obstructive, political speech on the public streets, a traditional public forum, because certain listeners or viewers find the speech offensive," he added.
The suit in California is one of several 1st Amendment battles the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform is fighting around the country in its reproductive choice campaign, in which trucks and planes carry graphic images of aborted fetuses to expose the public to what its members call "the reality of abortion."
Bio-Ethical Reform says it conducts its campaign at middle schools and high schools because it believes its message will discourage teenage abortions.
"This is a huge win for the First Amendment," Gregg Cunningham, the center's executive director, expressed in a released statement after Wednesday's ruling. "This is an even larger win for middle school and high school students who are being lied to about abortion and who will now learn the truth as our billboard trucks drive past their schools displaying large aborted baby photos.
"There are some realities which can not be adequately communicated with words alone," he added. "Students who are old enough to have an abortion are old enough to see an abortion."
John Allen, a lawyer for the school administrator who called the sheriff's deputies, said his client hadn't decided whether to appeal.