August 18, 2023

Appeals Court Rules Washington DC Violated Pro-Life Groups' Freedom of Speech

2 pro-life activists chalking a pro-life message on a
Washington DC sidewalk in 2020.
On August 15, the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit upheld the First Amendment rights of pro-lifers who were arrested for writing a pro-life message in chalk on a public sidewalk in Washington DC.

The case stems from an incident in 2020 when pro-lifers with the Frederick Douglass Foundation and Students for Life of America gathered to write pro-life messages in chalk and temporary paint on a public road and sidewalk in front of a Planned Parenthood facility. This occurred shortly after BLM protestors were allowed to write "Black Lives Matter" and "Defund the Police" in permanent paint on city streets.

Washington DC didn't arrest any BLM protestors in accordance with its public defacement ordinance, but it did arrest two pro-life activists for chalking on the sidewalk. Law enforcement also prevented these groups from using the temporary paint.

A Students for Life staff member told Live Action at the time that the groups obtained verbal permission from the police department to use temporary paint, but police who arrived at the event would not allow it.

“The government may not enforce the laws in a manner that picks winners and losers in public debates,” the D.C. Circuit wrote in its opinion reversing the decision of a lower court in The Frederick Douglass Foundation v. District of Columbia. “It would undermine the First Amendment’s protections for free speech if the government could enact a content-neutral law and then discriminate against disfavored viewpoints under the cover of prosecutorial discretion.”

Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel Erin Hawley, who argued the case on behalf of the pro-life organizations, praised the court's 3-0 decision.
“Washington officials can’t censor messages they disagree with. The right to free speech is for everyone, and we’re pleased the D.C. Circuit agreed that the Frederick Douglass Foundation and Students for Life should be able to exercise their constitutionally protected freedom to peacefully share their views the same as anyone else. Every American deserves for their voice to be heard as they engage in important cultural and political issues of the day.”

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