In a successful ending of a two-part lawsuit seeking to vindicate the First Amendment rights of sidewalk counselors arrested in front of an abortion facility in Greensboro, North Carolina, the parties have mutually agreed to dismiss the litigation upon the city’s admission that the counselors’ free speech rights were violated when they were arrested.
In March and April, 2020, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic scare, a group of Christians belonging to Global Impact Ministries, operating under the name Love Life, appeared on three occasions at a local Greensboro abortion facility to walk and pray on the sidewalk outside. This was their regular practice even before the pandemic.
The members were arrested and charged with violating the Guilford County public health orders concerning COVID-19. The Greensboro police informed the group that First Amendment activity was not permitted under the county’s order. The counselors were also told they violated the county health orders by driving into the city rather than coming on foot, and also that they came from outside the county, neither of which was mentioned in the county’s order.
The county order also prohibited groups of 10 or more people from congregating in public, and the counselors were also charged with violating that, but the Love Life group was careful not to involve 10 or more of its members. The counselors also followed other public health rules about masks, social distancing and the like.
Love Life sued both the county and the city with the help of attorneys from Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).
The county reached a settlement with Love Life back in February 2022 that involved the payment of the group’s attorneys’ fees and a promise not to violate their First Amendment rights in the future.
The city has now admitted, according to an ADF press release, that “the City of Greensboro issued citations for [Love Life members’] exercise of constitutionally protected First Amendment rights and thereafter arrested [them].” That admission led to the dismissal of the rest of the lawsuit.
“According to Greensboro officials, praying while walking was not allowed because of COVID-19. Clearly, this case was never about public health and safety; it was about the government silencing people because it didn’t like what they had to say,” ADF Senior Counsel Denise Harle, director of the ADF Center for Life, said in the statement.
“That said, we commend the city for finally agreeing to respect the free speech rights of Love Life members and acknowledge their freedom to pray and speak in the public square, just like every other citizen’s.”
While the dangers of COVID-19 were obvious to all and public health measures taken were deemed necessary by government public health officials at the time, this case highlights the dangers of allowing the government to trample constitutional rights, even in an “emergency.”
The temptation to use a “public emergency” as a pretext for shutting down messages the government doesn’t agree with can be too great to resist, as these pro-life sidewalk counselors learned to their detriment.
But, as the U.S. Department of Justice wrote in a May 2020 letter to California’s governor in another COVID-19 context, “there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights.”
It’s good to see that the city of Greensboro has recognized the truth of that statement and decided to settle. Hopefully, the constitutional principles this case stands for will inform future governmental responses to new “emergencies” and ensure that everyone’s First Amendment rights are respected.
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