An officer watches over Planned Parenthood in Pennsylvania
Pro-life protesters are taking their case to federal court because they claim York, Pa., police repeatedly violated their free speech rights while they were handing out tracts and preaching outside the city’s Planned Parenthood clinic.
John McTernan, Edward D. Snell, John Wood and Luanne Ferguson have filed a civil suit against York police for being “chilled, frustrated and deterred in the exercise of their First Amendment activities due to the city’s policy of ignoring First Amendment rights.”
Their complaint states, “By denying plaintiffs the right to access public streets with other like-minded people, [York police] denied plaintiffs the right of assembly on account of the content of their message.”
Attorney Dennis Boyle represents the pro-life advocates in the case.
“Essentially we have a series of arrests by the York City Police Department that have gone to the state, and the pro-life people have been found not guilty in the state court system,” he said. “So we’ve filed a federal court suit to prevent these unlawful arrests from continuing. It is just the police officers basically trying to make life inconvenient for the pro-life people here.”
Chaplain John McTernan is a former federal agent and co-founder of the Christian police group International Cops for Christ. He told WND, “Since 1999 or 2000, York police’s conduct has been outrageous toward pro-life advocates at the Planned Parenthood abortion center.”
McTernan cites incidents of abuse and complacency on the part of city police officers who are compensated by Planned Parenthood to work overtime shifts standing outside of the clinic. Uniformed officers are said to be paid $37.50 per hour, and they sign up for shifts on a volunteer basis.
“They watched one woman get beaten. She had to be put in the hospital,” McTernan said. “High speed cars have attempted to run us over. We have videos of most of it. They won’t do anything.”
In one incident, McTernan said an 18-wheeler tried to run over John Holman, one of his fellow pro-life advocates. Holman jumped out of the way to avoid the truck and was arrested for criminal trespass after he landed on a strip of property the clinic claims to own, according to McTernan. They submitted a video of the incident to authorities, and the charges were later dropped.
Ferguson is being charged with criminal trespassing after approaching the facility on a ramp that extends into the public sidewalk. A licensed surveyor visited the property and acknowledged that the ramp was, in fact, in the public right-of-way.
“Last I spoke with her, the doctor said she was going to have to have an operation on her left arm because she suffered nerve damage from the arrest,” McTernan said.
McTernan wrote letters to Planned Parenthood and to Commissioner Mark L. Whitman in November 2006, notifying them that the clinic’s entire ramp, porch, canopy and railings extend beyond the clinic’s property line by nearly three feet into the public right-of-way. Attorney Dennis Boyle said he has provided the district attorney with evidence, including a certified survey report and two videos, showing the exact location of the arrest.
In John McTernan v. City of York, a District Judge John E. Jones III ruled against McTernan and upheld Planned Parenthood’s claim to the public property in front of the clinic. The case is being appealed, however, and the district attorney has decided to continue with criminal trespass charges against Ferguson.
McTernan told WND another protester was attacked and hit over the head with a board by a pro-choice protester. “She suffered injury to her neck as a result of this blow that she received, but yet, they trump up charges against us,” he said.
Another pro-life advocate, Ed Snell, was charged with disorderly conduct after attempting to hand tracts to pregnant women who were entering the clinic. The charges were later dropped.
“Ed was injured during the arrest,” McTernan said. “They ratcheted the cuffs on him real tight. He took pictures after the arrest and you could see the marks and swelling where they had cuffed him. He told them they were tight, and they refused to do anything.”
In addition to allegedly turning a blind eye on assault, McTernan said police do not respond when children enter the clinics for abortions. He said some look as young as 13 years old. McTernan took pictures of the children to the district attorney and other authorities, but he said nothing has been done.
“We point out how young they are, and the police refuse to do anything,” he said. “You name it, and it is going on there. I’ve got DVDs of me standing in front of a police officer, pointing out the kids and saying ‘look!’ He asked me, ‘Have you seen her birth certificate? Do you know how old she is?'”
The city filed a civil suit against the pro-life advocates more than two years ago. McTernan said it attempted to evict protesters from public property surrounding the clinic.
“They needed criminal cases to prove we were dangerous there,” he told WND. “They had a civil suit against us and were trying to get an injunction for a bubble zone. They lost that. That went on for about two years. Then, there’s an alley right next to the abortion clinic where we can get close to the people going in, and we can get close to the workers. They were trying to get convictions on us so they could get a court order keeping us off that alley. That was their objective.”
McTernan said even with his background as a federal agent, he is shocked at how York police have treated pro-life advocates.
“The behavior of the York city police and the DA office is frightening,” McTernan told WND. “In all of my travels, and talking to police as a chaplain, I have never seen such disrespect for the law and such patronizing. They’re pursuing criminal prosecution on someone they know is innocent – in [Ferguson’s] case, because her beliefs are pro-life.”
Officers in the police department declined to respond to WND’s multiple requests for comment.
It was just another in a series of incidents in which governmental authorities appear to be trying to limit Christians’ speech rights, based on the content of their statements.
As WND had reported just a day earlier, officials in St. Petersburg, Fla., made good on their plan to limit free speech at the city’s homosexual festival by arresting five Christians for carrying signs “wider than their torsos” outside the officially designated protest area.
Pastor Billy Ball, Assistant Pastor Doug Pitts, Frankie Primavera and Josh Pettigrew, all of Faith Baptist Church in Primrose, Ga., were arrested today after leaving the area set aside by city officials for protest activities. Bill Holt, of Lighthouse Baptist Church in Jefferson, Ga., was also taken into custody.
According to Lighthouse Pastor Kevin Whitman, the five men were told by police their signs were not allowed outside the protest area because they were wider than their torsos. When the men refused to put them away, they were arrested for violating a controversial city ordinance that governs permitted events.
“We had police officers tell us bigger people could carry bigger signs than smaller people – it all depended on how big your torso was,” said Whitman, who, with several others, returned to the officially designated protest area rather than face arrest.
As WND reported, St. Petersburg officials, following disturbances at a previous homosexual pride festival, implemented rules governing outdoor events that set aside “free speech zones,” where protesters are allowed.
The resulting ordinance came under fire by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Alliance Defense Fund for being too broad. It allows the city to create prior restraints of speech on an event-by-event basis, with virtually no predictable limits. It also criminalizes certain free speech behavior around public events and authorizes the police to enforce breaches of permits – the penalty for such breaches being arrest.
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Chelsea Schilling is an editorial assistant for WND