A police officer in Hollywood, Florida, has told participants in the pro-life 40 Days for Life prayer campaign that abortionists at a local clinic can control use of the public sidewalk adjacent to their building.
The stunning claim prompted the Thomas More Society to dispatch a letter to city officials asking them to confirm that the banishment was a mistake.
“Officer Del Castillo’s order is a clearly unconstitutional restriction of our clients’ freedom of speech in a traditional public forum – a public sidewalk,” the legal team said in a letter Tuesday to city officials.
“First Amendment rights are at their maximum in public fora. The Supreme Court has noted that ‘use of the streets and public places has, from ancient times, been a part of the privileges, immunities, rights, and liberties of citizens,’” the letter said.
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A city official said an investigation was under way.
But the Thomas More Society explained that the prayer vigil is in the midst of its 40-day run.
On the first day, several volunteers, including Nancy Farmer, John Hickey and Jay Ross, showed up at the abortion business, where previous prayer vigils had been held. But they were ordered by Castillo to move off the public sidewalk.
“Castillo asserted that since the clinic ‘maintains’ both the sidewalk and the swale, the clinic is permitted to exclude whomever it cho[o]ses – presumably those whose viewpoints it disagrees with – from walking on ‘their’ property,” Thomas More explained.
The officer, however, “told the 40 Days Hollywood volunteers they could stand on the public swale adjacent to the sidewalk, without explaining the rationale for banning volunteers from the sidewalk but not the swale.”
The officer informed the volunteers “that he was noting in a report that he had issued this order, presumably with the intent to ticket or otherwise punish any individual who violated his order.”
The lawyers wrote to city officials: “It is clear that that order is illegal and, we presume, undertaken without your knowledge. That order – banning First Amendment activity on public property, namely a public sidewalk – if truly reflective of the position taken by the city of Hollywood and the Hollywood Police Department, would be a clear violation of our clients’ First Amendment rights.
“We would like to promptly and amicably resolve the issue … [with] confirmation from the city of Hollywood and the office of the chief of police that officer Del Castillo was mistaken.”
“Forbidding pro-lifers from standing on public property violates 75 years of clear Supreme Court precedent that gives broad protections to those engaging in free speech in public places,” said Corrina Konczal, associate counsel for the Thomas More Society. “We are confident that, once the city and chief of police are made aware of this officer’s unconstitutional ban, that they will reverse this order and assure our clients of their rights to publicly pray and hold signs on any sidewalk in the city.”
The pro-life activists typically stand on the sidewalks and pray, sometimes holding signs such as “Pray to End Abortion.”
“We should not be banned from the public sidewalk just because we’re pro-life,” John Hickey said in a statement released through Thomas More.
“We’re exercising our First Amendment rights by holding a peaceful prayer vigil to help women and unborn children. Hopefully, Officer Del Castillo’s supervisors will reverse his incorrect order so that our free speech will be respected for the rest of the 40 Days vigil.”