ACLA NEWS COVERAGE

From The Morning Call -- January 21, 2005

Abortion Protesters Want City Fined
for Picket Limits

Police ignore U.S. court order to let them rally near clinic, lawyers say.

By Elliot Grossman
and Dan Hartzell Of The Morning Call

Abortion protesters in Allentown have launched another legal attack to prevent police from limiting their picketing, this time by asking a federal judge to hold the city in contempt of court.

Lawyers for the eight protesters are asking U.S. District Judge James McGirr Kelly of Philadelphia to fine top city officials $1,000 a day and consider imprisoning them if police continue to restrict picketing. Mayor Roy Afflerbach, Chief Joseph Blackburn, Assistant Chief Ronald Manescu and the city are the defendants.

''Defendants are engaged in nothing short of lawless, renegade conduct in violation of their sworn duty to uphold the law,'' lawyers for the protesters wrote.

The protesters' lawyers allege that police have repeatedly violated Kelly's August 2004 order to permit picketing at the Allentown Women's Center, an east-side clinic.

In his order, Kelly created rules for the protesters and police to govern where the abortion opponents could picket outside the center. Kelly issued that ruling after the protesters filed a lawsuit, claiming that police had been violating their rights to assemble, to exercise free speech and to practice their religion.

Since that ruling, police have filed 33 citations against protesters, according to the protesters' lawyers. Judges have cleared them in every case, except one, the lawyers said. That case is pending.

The results in those cases show that the ''evidence of wilful misconduct is overwhelming'' against police, the lawyers wrote in their Jan. 7 contempt motion. Police are trying to intimidate and harass the abortion opponents, according to lawyers Denis Brenan and Christopher Ferrara.

Brenan and Ferrara want Kelly to issue an order blocking police from charging their clients with loitering, trespassing and other offenses. They also want an order prohibiting police from limiting the protesters' ability to picket, distribute leaflets, pray, walk, stand and talk to pregnant women entering the clinic.

The city has not filed a formal reply to the contempt motion. But in an interview, lawyer Thomas Anewalt, representing the city, said police are frustrated and confused about how to deal with protesters because of ambiguities in Kelly's ruling.

''The cops really don't know what to do,'' Anewalt said. ''They're just flabbergasted.''

Kelly ruled that protesters are allowed to demonstrate on Keats Street, where the center's entrance is, as long as they do so on the ''public walkways'' without blocking the center's entrance, its parking lot or traffic.

But the lack of sidewalks outside the main entrance has complicated the matter. Police do not know where the ''public walkways'' are, if they exist at all, Anewalt said. For safety and to keep traffic moving, police say, they don't want protesters in the street.

According to Anewalt, officers have merely urged protesters to keep moving so they don't block the clinic entrance or the street and to refrain from actions that infringe on the rights of the clinic staff and patients actions that could constitute harassment.

Officers are trying to fulfill their obligation to protect the safety of people on both sides of the abortion debate, regardless of their personal feelings, Anewalt said. ''They're really caught in the middle here,'' he said.

But the protesters claim that police have violated Kelly's order by requiring them to keep moving, to stay on one side of Keats Street, to walk back and forth continuously on Keats Street or to walk around the entire block.

The police are in ''open defiance'' of Kelly's order, according to the contempt motion. ''They are literally daring this court to stop their antics.''

Protester Kathleen Teay is one of several protesters who filed a written statement for the court, explaining how she believes the police actions are hampering her protest efforts.

''In particular,'' she wrote, ''I cannot distribute literature, speak to expectant mothers or show them what babies in the womb look like if I am forced to 'keep moving,' walk around the block and, as of Dec. 16, stay off Keats Street altogether.''

Teay wrote that, in early December, a pregnant women changed her mind about having an abortion after she talked to Teay. ''A 'save' like this will not be possible under the threats and restrictions defendants keep trying to impose on our First Amendment rights.''

Meanwhile, the protesters have another request pending in federal court to get the police to give them more freedom to picket. In November, they asked Kelly to issue an order an injunction declaring that police have violated his August ruling.

Kelly had not ruled on that request before that case was transferred to U.S. District Judge James Knoll Gardner in Allentown. Gardner has referred the case to U.S. Magistrate Arnold Rapoport to try to settle it.

grossman@mcall.com

610-820-6168