SAN FRANCISCO — Police were wrong to briefly detain and then run off abortion protesters driving a truck bearing large photographs of aborted fetuses around a middle school right before the morning bell, a federal appeals court ruled yesterday.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the abortion foes had a free-speech right to drive the truck on public streets adjacent to the Los Angeles County school and that "the government cannot silence messages simply because they cause discomfort, fear, or even anger."
On March 24, 2003, two representatives of the anti-abortion group Center for Bio-ethical Reform arrived at the Dodson Middle School in Rancho Palos Verdes 30 minutes before class began, at around 7:30 a.m. Center employee Paul Kulas drove the truck and center volunteer Thomas Padberg drove a "security vehicle."
Assistant Principal Art Roberts called the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department while the two vehicles circled the campus on public streets.
Roberts later testified he saw "two or three" girls cry and had to admonish several boys to refrain from throwing stones at the truck.
Roberts also said it was more difficult than usual to get the children into school and that at least one class discussed the images rather than focusing on regular schoolwork. The truck also caused traffic congestion around the school, Roberts said.
By 8:05 a.m., two sheriff's deputies pulled over the two vehicles and called their supervisor to help determine whether a crime had occurred. By 9:20 a.m., the anti-abortion activists were ordered to leave the area or face arrest for illegally disrupting a school.
The appeals court said the deputies were wrong to detain the men for as long as they did — 75 minutes — because no crime occurred. The protesters were allowed to do what they did.
"That conduct was disruptive only because of the audience's reaction to the content of the speech," Judge Harry Pregerson wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel in Center for Bio-ethical Reform v. Los Angeles County Sheriff Dept. "All of these reactions were triggered by the upsetting message on the truck not by noise, or physical obstruction."
Pregerson, one of the most liberal judges on the appeals court, also noted that the anti-abortion protest took place before the start of school.
"This is a pretty good victory for the pro-life movement, but also for the First Amendment," said center lawyer Robert Muise.
The Los Angeles County counsel's office said it hadn't decided whether to appeal.
"It's too soon to say," said deputy counsel Jennifer Lehman. "We are going to evaluate all our options."