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Heckler's veto

Abortion | Circuit court rules in favor of displaying abortion photos

Issue: "NextGen worship," July 26, 2008

In a ruling that surprised some observers, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the right of a pro-life group to display photos showing the bodies of babies dismembered during abortions. The conservative Thomas More Law Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., had brought suit on behalf of the Center for Bioethical Reform (CBR), a California pro-life group. The case involved police detention for 75 minutes of two CBR pro-life activists who in March circled Rancho Palos Verdes Middle School in Los Angeles, driving a large truck displaying on three sides photos of aborted babies. School officials and the LA County Sheriff's Department claimed the photo displays were "disruptive," in violation of California law.

The 9th Circuit ruled on July 3 that in detaining the activists, sheriff's deputies violated the demonstrators' First and Fourth Amendment rights to free speech and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. In its ruling, the court cited the "heckler's veto," which states that citizens' speech cannot be curtailed because of listeners' reactions to that speech's content. CBR activists' "speech was permitted until the students and drivers around the school reacted to it, at which point the speech was deemed disruptive and ordered stopped," wrote Judge Harry Pregerson. "This application of the statute raises serious First Amendment concerns."

At trial, school officials testified to some students' angry reactions to the graphic images; for example, a group of boys hurled rocks at the truck. In a deposition, CBR executive director Gregg Cunningham defended the use of the photos: "There are some realities which cannot be adequately communicated with words alone," he said. "Students who are old enough to have an abortion are old enough to see an abortion."

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