The city and a local women’s clinic are again at the center of a federal lawsuit involving anti-abortion protesters — including one with a history of winning federal fights concerning free speech.
Liberty Counsel, an international nonprofit religious freedom defense group, on Thursday sued the city and three of its police officers on behalf of anti-abortion activists Susan Pine and Marilyn Blackburn, who say the city’s noise ordinance is unconstitutional and authorities have used it to try to stifle their presence outside the Presidential Women’s Center.
The suit asks a federal judge to prohibit the city from enforcing the ordinance and also asks for reimbursement for court fees and costs. West Palm Beach spokesman Elliot Cohen on Friday said city officials have not yet had the chance to review the lawsuit and declined further comment. Louis Silber, an attorney for the clinic, didn’t return a call for comment.
According to the lawsuit, the ordinance banning people from shouting, playing loud music or making any amplified sound within 100 feet of any health care facility is not only unconstitutional but local police officials also have been applying the law unevenly against Pine and Blackburn by fining them for using a bullhorn near the clinic.
The fine, they say, came after police officers routinely recorded them when they used the bullhorn and even used a laser-measuring device to calculate the distance between the clinic and where the protesters were standing.
After the fine, police failed to provide the women with guidance on how far away they could stand from the clinic without violating the ordinance, according to the suit.
The group contends that the ordinance is so broad that — if enforced correctly — it should land many other residents in trouble.
“Under the Ordinance, a neighbor to the health care facility residing within 100 feet of the property line would violate the Ordinance by watching television in her living room,” attorneys Stephen Crampton, Horatio G. Mihet and Mat Staver wrote in the suit Thursday. “That same neighbor would also be in violation of the Ordinance if she shouted upstairs to her children to come down for dinner – even though no one at any “health care facility” could hear her.
City police have failed to enforce the ordinance against nearby fast-food restaurants and even the clinic itself for the announcements they sometimes make on their loudspeakers, the women’s lawyers said.
“Instead, Defendants only enforce the Ordinance against Plaintiffs and those who share their viewpoint,” the attorneys alleged in the suit.
Staver, Liberty Counsel’s founding member and chairman, said by phone Friday that the ordinance is unconstitutional even if police enforced the law evenly across the board.
“It’s so broad you can’t essentially make any noise,” he said.
The latest lawsuit doesn’t mark either group’s first dealings with Pine, the founder of the ministry Faith Action Counseling Education for Life, or FACE Life. Pine, who for years has been regularly handing out leaflets and trying to explain her views about abortion to anyone entering the West Palm Beach clinic, already has a record of winning cases against the government.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in 2010 sought an injunction preventing Pine and anyone associated with her from either entering any driveway leading to Presidential or blocking women from entering the center where abortions are performed. The request also made Pine liable for up to a $10,000 fine.
But in a scathing 21-page order, federal judges threw out the lawsuit, saying the government failed to prove that Pine was guilty of any wrongdoing. The ruling also forced the government to pay $120,000 in Pine’s attorney’s fees.
“A person is entitled to express his or her views on abortion so long as by doing it does not interfere with another’s right to obtain an abortion,” U.S. District Judge Kenneth Ryskamp wrote in his ruling on that case, later adding: “The Court is at a loss as to why the Government chose to prosecute this particular case in the first place.”
Before that, in 2005, Pine successfully challenged the previously version of West Palm Beach’s noise ordinance. A 2007 ruling in that case prompted the city to change its noise ordinance to the current provision a year later.