Abortion protestors have right to free speech despite graphic posters

July 28, 2011

It's time for the Maryland State Police and the Attorney General's Office to stop wasting time, back off and settle with anti-abortion protesters who were arrested in the summer of 2008 in Harford County.

Yes, the protesters were mostly from out of town. Yes, the posters they were displaying to traffic on Route 24 were graphic and unpleasant. And they probably were looking to maximize their exposure and their arrest probably did more to help publicize their cause than the initial demonstration.

Agree with what they had to say, or disagree —  and there are plenty of people on all sides of the abortion issue in Harford County — one point on which we should all agree is the protesters had a right to protest free from harassment by the police.

The Bill of Rights guarantees both our right of peaceful assembly and free speech. Both of these rights were being tested by the anti-abortion protesters in July 2008. But it seemed clear then, as it does now, that they were operating within the law.

Indeed, it seems the justification for making the arrests was based, at least to some degree, on complaints from the public at large about the graphic anti-abortion posters they were displaying.

In other words, they were arrested because some people didn't like what they were saying.

This, of course, goes against the elementary school text book founding American principle of defending another's right to have a fair say, even while disagreeing with what is being said.

In this instance, a federal judge agreed with the protesters, and has issued a ruling that allows them to pursue damages against the state police. It seems pretty clear that, unless something is horribly wrong with the state of our republic and its willingness to preserve our free speech rights, this decision will stand.

Even so, the state is pursuing an appeal. Any appeal should be re-considered and withdrawn. While a successful appeal on the part of the state could save the state from a costly settlement with the protesters, it would also open the door to any of us being arrested any time someone calls to complain about what we have to say or how we choose to say it. No amount of money saved would be worth that loss of freedom.

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