Two anti-abortion demonstrators are suing the Richmond Police Department, charging that it violated their First Amendment rights.
The protestors, Charles Neal and Paul Trout, allege that an off-duty city officer hired by the Richmond Medical Center for Women on North Boulevard denied their constitutionally protected rights to free speech and free exercise of religion.
Along with the officer, Howard Noyes, Trout and Neal are also suing Richmond Police Chief Rodney Monroe and the city of Richmond. (City police officers must get approval from the department to work off-duty security jobs. The city also requires off-duty officers to be armed and in uniform.)
In their suit, Neal and Trout say that Noyes has cited them three times since 2004 for being "too loud," once holding Neal in jail for two hours. Each time the charges were dismissed. The complaint argues that city and state noise ordinances are unconstitutionally vague, offering no definition of "too loud."
Attorneys from the Alliance Defense Fund, a nonprofit based in Scottsdale, Ariz., are representing Trout and Neal.
"The reason we got involved is that pro-life speech shouldn't be considered second-class speech," says Steve Taylor, one of the attorneys representing Trout and Neal. "The police cannot reprimand people for being too loud when no standard of an acceptable noise level exists."
Taylor says they're hoping for a judgment that would let the protestors continue to demonstrate freely.
"They should be treated in the exact same way as anybody else under the ordinance, as long as the ordinance is constitutional," says Kent Willis, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.
"One of the finer lines in the issue of free speech is when intimidation happens and when it doesn't," Willis says.
Jill Abbey, director of the clinic, says protestors have been a continual presence. "We have no problem with them protesting. That's free speech and that's fine," Abbey says. But, she adds, "One of their goals is to intimidate women, and in a health-care setting you want your patient to be as comfortable as possible. If your patient is still going to carry out her decision, if she's nervous and scared, it's not as safe."
"Both Mr. Neal and Mr. Trout acted entirely within the law when speaking out against abortion and counseling at the clinic," Taylor says.
A police spokeswoman declined to comment, citing the city's policy of not discussing pending litigation.
At press time, a hearing had not been scheduled on the complaint, which was filed Aug. 28 in the Richmond division of U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. The attorney for the city of Richmond was on vacation last week and unreachable. SClick here for more News and Features