Life Legal Defense Association (LLDF) filed suit July 23 against the Jackson, Miss., Police Department, for allegedly violating the First Amendment rights pro-life activists outside the state’s only abortion facility.
LLDF, a non-profit law firm representing Pro-Life Mississippi, says the police frequently threatened activists with arrest without legal basis. The police have interpreted a statute to mean that anyone sitting or standing on the sidewalk creates an obstruction, even though the activists leave about 4 feet of space on the sidewalks said Allison Aranda, senior staff counsel at LLDF.
“The Jackson Police Department has routinely harassed pro-life citizens, who have been peacefully exercising their legal right to oppose abortion in the public square and offer information about life-affirming alternatives to women seeking abortion,” LLDF president Dana Cody said.
Filed in federal court, the suit cites nine instances of harassment between February 2013 and June 2014, though rights violations allegedly began before 1996. Causes for arrest included blocking sidewalks and holding signs while sitting on public benches. Most of the recent cases were dropped or charges weren’t recorded.
The city can’t provide comment on the pending suit, a city spokesperson told The Clarion-Ledger.
In July, Jackson police failed to stop a man from stealing sidewalk signs set up outside Jackson Women’s Health Organization by Created Equal, an Ohio pro-life activist organization. The owner of the facility’s building, Mike Peters, took the signs to his basement as officers watched and the protestors videoed their requests for police intervention. The police threatened to arrest him, but ultimately did nothing. “I'm dealing with something right now,” one officer said. Though Mark Harrington of Created Equal has filed charges against Peters in a separate suit, the inaction is typical of Jackson’s police, Aranda said. They frequently either charge both parties or drop all charges. The police have also failed to arrest pro-abortion activists, Aranda said.
“For police to be selective and prejudicial as to how they enforce the law outside of Mississippi’s only abortion vendor does a disservice to the people of Jackson,” Cody said. “When those charged with upholding the law violate the basic rights of citizens, it cannot be tolerated.”
In 2008, a court issued a consent order requiring training in First Amendment rights. After the order expired a year later, the police returned to harassing and threatening the activists, Aranda said. Controversy has surrounded Jackson Women’s Health Organization in recent years. Just this week, it won a legal appeal challenging a state law that would have forced it to close because its providers do not have privileges at a local hospital. The facility’s owner has come under fire for a poor safety record that led Alabama officials to close an abortion center she owned in Birmingham.