Police in Mississippi have engaged in a pattern of harassment and false arrests designed to chill pro-life speech outside that state's last abortion facility, even confiscating and refusing to return a pro-life counselor's Bible, a new legal complaint states.
Lawyers with the Life Legal Defense Fund (LLDF) say the Jackson Police Department has “systematically infringed, and continues to infringe, upon the free speech rights of citizens by unlawfully arresting, citing, and threatening to arrest” sidewalk counselors “for conduct that is protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments.”
All of the alleged harassment took place outside Jackson Women's Health Organization (JHWO), which recently won an appeal allowing it to remain open despite its inability to obtain admitting privileges at a local hospital.
“For years, dating back to before 1996, JPD has harassed pro-life demonstrators” with “trumped-up charges” designed to “suppress speech,” the lawsuit says. In 2006, the city agreed to a judge's consent decree to give officers annual training on protesters' First Amendment rights.
The new complaint, filed in U.S. district court last Wednesday, says the police have violated that decree for at least five years.
Police have seemingly grasped any pretext to jail pro-life counselors, the complaint states. In 2009, officers arrested two pro-lifers after telling them they must hold their free-standing signs rather than allowing them to rest on the sidewalk.
“There is no statute or ordinance that imposes such a requirement,” the complaint states. The charges were dismissed.
But in 2011 and 2012, after advocates began holding signs to comply with their instructions, officers threatened to arrest them for “disturbing the peace.”
Last December, JPD officers arrested Ester Mann and Ronald Nederhoed for blocking the sidewalk, because they allowed their signs to rest on the ground and sat on small chairs, which LLDF says allowed pedestrians to pass by comfortably.
The City of Jackson's Municipal Court dismissed the charges in February, but lawyers say, “The City still retains possession of Nederhoed's Bible, chair, and small sign.”
At other times, police seemed to need little provocation to threaten arrest. JPD officer Mary James told Mann earlier this month, “I do not like your tone, and if you do not do what I say, I will give you a free ride downtown.”
Yet in a display of blatant bias, “JPD officers allow pro-abortion to stand and sit anywhere along the public sidewalk or right-of-way…without arrest or threat of arrest,” the brief contends.
The lawsuit comes as new video shows police officers using the same tactics on pro-life advocates as recently as two weeks ago. Officers told members of Created Equal they may not place their sandwich board signs on the sidewalk but instead hold them, giving them contradictory instructions along the way. When members said other activists and businesses were not required to comply with these instructions, police said the businesses had a permit to violate a statute LLDF says does not exist.
“I feel like I was transported back 50 years when Freedom Riders were harassed by Jackson police and business owners, as white racists interfered with their right to use interstate commerce,” said Mark Harrington, executive director of Created Equal.
Earlier this month, his group released footage of eight Jackson police officers standing by as local business owner Mike Peters removed 18 pro-life signs from the sidewalk, carting them off into his building in plain view.
LLDF's plaintiff in this case, Pro-Life Mississippi, is seeking damages, legal fees, and a permanent injunction against future harassment of all pro-life counselors.