Supreme Court Ruling a Victory for Pro-Life Activists, Free Speech

Supreme Court buildingWith all the focus on the national elections, you may have missed the news last week that the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in favor of a group of pro-life activists.

Via the Chicago Tribune:

In November 2005, Steven Lefemine, leader of a group called Columbia Christians for Life, led 20 protesters who stood at the busiest intersection in Greenwood County, S.C., and held up color photos of mutilated fetuses. He said the goal was to “shock the consciences of those who see the signs to the horrors of abortion.”

Several motorists called police to complain. …

According to court papers, an officer arrived and told Lefemine that he was causing a traffic disturbance and that he must “remove the signs.” He did as instructed, but two years later, he sued Sheriff Dan Wideman and other officials. He sought a ruling that would allow him to display the photos in future protests. He also sought damages from the officers for violating his constitutional rights.

A federal judge in Greenville, S.C., agreed that the 1st Amendment guaranteed Lefemine’s right to the “display of graphic signs,” so long as he did not cause a traffic disturbance. The police, for example, could see to it that protesters did not move into the street or otherwise obstruct the free flow of traffic.

But the judge also shielded the sheriff and city officials from paying damages in the case because the law in this area had not been entirely clear. Because it was a split decision, the judge said Lefemine was not entitled to attorneys’ fees as the prevailing party.

The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the judge’s decision in March.

The Supreme Court has adopted a broad approach to the Civil Rights Act and said plaintiffs can obtain civil rights fees if they prevail on any significant issue. Without hearing arguments in Lefemine vs. Wideman, the justices reversed the two lower courts on Monday and said the antiabortion protester was a “prevailing party” because he won the right to display his graphic photos on the sidewalk.

It’s worth pointing out here that Lefemine, et al., made a smart move by complying with the sheriff’s demands, even though the sheriff was clearly in the wrong.

“Comply now, grieve later” is generally the best policy, as violations of one’s constitutional rights can most effectively be challenged afterward in court—as evidenced by Lefemine’s ultimate vindication by the Supreme Court.

The article also noted this key point:

Although the ruling concerned only legal fees, it probably will strengthen the hand of abortion protesters who clash with police or city officials. If they go to court and prevail on any claim, they can force officials to pay their legal costs.

Bottom line: The Supreme Court has, once again, ruled that the First Amendment rights of pro-life activists — and, indeed, all citizens — to protest in the public square are sacrosanct.

Civil authorities and law enforcement officials would do well to take heed.

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