A federal appeals court ruled today that authorities violated the rights of members of an anti-abortion group by ordering them to stop driving a truck displaying large, graphic images of aborted fetuses around a California middle school.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, ruled unanimously in Center for Bio-Ethical Reform v. Los Angeles County Sheriff Department that a California statute that bars disruption on or near school grounds could not be applied under the First Amendment to efforts by the anti-abortion group to drive its truck around Dodson Middle School in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.
The suit stems from a March 24, 2003, incident when the group’s truck targeted the middle school just as students were arriving for the day. According to the court papers, some students were upset by the graphic images of fetuses, a group of boys threatened to throw rocks at the truck, and other students talked about it in class.
School officials called the Los Angeles County sheriff’s department, which dispatched several officers. According to the court documents, Art Roberts, the deputy principal of Dodson Middle, joined the officers in telling the anti-abortion group members that they would have to leave the area adjoining the school. They cited the the state law against disruptions near campuses.
Roberts was named as a defendant, along with several sheriff’s deputies, in the anti-abortion group’s suit.
A federal district court dismissed the suit, but in the July 2 ruling, the 9th Circuit court revived it. The court said that because the government officials restricted the group’s speech based on the targeted listener’s reaction to it, that amounted to allowing a “heckler’s veto” in violation of the First Amendment.
“Children may well be particularly susceptible to distraction or emotion in the face of controversial speech, and may not always be expected to react responsibly,” the court said. “There is, however, no precedent for a ‘minors’ exception to the prohibition on banning speech because of listeners’ reaction to its content. It would therefore be an unprecedented departure from bedrock First Amendment principles to allow the government to restrict speech based on listener reaction simply because the listeners are children.”
The court held that because of uncertainty in applying the state statute to this situation, the assisant principal and the sheriff’s deputies were entitled to qualified immunity from any personal liability in the case. But it ordered the district to reconsider the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform‘s request for injunctive relief. (Warning: The group’s Web site opens with a graphic abortion video.)
(Thanks to How Appealing for the tip on this decision.)
A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.