It’s not uncommon for police to be called when you engage in public activism against abortion. Sometimes they will be called by the people running an abortion facility, other times it will be members of the public who are offended by your activism. Do not let police presence worry you.
Generally speaking, the police will be cooperative and friendly. They’re there to keep the peace and ensure that your civil rights—including your rights to freedom of speech and assembly—are respected.
And in some cases, it may be you who call the police, either to report threatening activity by a counter-protestor or member of the public, or to ask for help resolving a dispute with a property owner or security guard. It’s a good practice to have the police non-emergency number on your phone for such occasions.
Identifying public property
If you are praying, protesting or sidewalk counseling on public property, the 1st Amendment protects your right to do so, even if others don’t like your message. But that does make it important that you know where public property is. The presence of a sidewalk and the presence of public utilities such as street lights, power lines and fire hydrants are good indicators of public property.
In most places the first ten or fifteen feet of land on either side of a public road is considered a public easement, where your 1st Amendment rights are protected.
It’s important to note that many newer abortion clinics have been constructed specifically to make sidewalk counseling difficult, so the entrances are built as far away from public property as can be. If you’re not sure where the lines are, maps are often available at the website for your county assessor. This will show you where the clinic’s property lines are.
Should you inform the police about your event?
One question that may be on your mind is: “Do I need to contact the police to let them know about my event?” In general, we do not recommend contacting the police in advance, since your event on public property does not require their permission or a permit of any kind.
However, under some circumstances, it may be to your advantage to inform them as a courtesy, not a request for permission. For example, if you expect a particularly large crowd you may want to inform them so they are not upset with being surprised by a large gathering.
If you will be doing something controversial such as using abortion victim photos you may want to let them know in advance so you can feel out whether there will be hostility from the police on the matter.
In the end, only inform the police in advance if it works in your favor to do so. You do not need their permission to assemble and speak in the public square.
Treat police with respect
Always treat the police with respect. Let them talk first, and do not interrupt. Nothing turns a law enforcement officer against you more quickly than being interrupted.
Your main priority in dealing with police should be for your activity to continue—not to “take a stand” for your rights.
Do your best to comply with reasonable directives from police, but don’t give them the opportunity to restrict your activities or location by asking too many questions. For example, if they ask you to reduce the volume of a P.A. system, do so, but don’t go out of your way to seek approval for the new volume level, risking an order to turn it down even more.
What to do if a dispute with police can’t be resolved
If you believe a particular officer is making unreasonable demands, call the police non-emergency number and ask for a superior officer to come out. Do not ask the officer to do this: do it yourself.
If you face a dispute with police you are not able to resolve on your own, we recommend you call the Thomas More Society Pro-Life Law Center. You can reach them at 312-782-1680.
In the unlikely event that you cannot resolve a dispute with the police, it is wiser to “obey today and sue tomorrow.” But don’t tell the police that this is your intention. Respectfully say that you believe the order is unjust, but that in the interests of moving forward with your activism, you will comply.
But again, your interactions with police are likely to be positive. If that’s the case, after your event, be sure to thank them for being there and keeping things safe. You may even wish to write a letter of thanks to the police chief if his officers are especially impressive.
What about private security?
In addition to the the police, you may also have to deal with private security officers in the course of doing your pro-life work. As with police, listen first, be respectful, and do your best to accommodate any reasonable requests (such as moving your protest gear onto public property).
However, you should remember that security guards do not have the same authority of police, and are often less informed about the law and your rights, and matters such as property lines. For example, we have often been assured by security guards that the sidewalk in front of a building is privately owned, when it plainly isn’t.
You should be aware that, unlike police, private security officers are not neutral parties. They are hired by the abortion facility or building management where your activity is taking place, and you can expect them to “take sides” in a way that the police should not.
If you cannot resolve a dispute with a private security guard, call the police non-emergency number and ask for an officer to be dispatched to help work things out.