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Pro-life Groups Sue D.C. Over Alleged Discrimination

— December 2, 2020

Two pro-life groups are suing Washington D.C. over allegations of discrimination.

Washington D.C. was recently hit with a lawsuit filed by two pro-life groups over allegations that the city “discriminated against their pro-life viewpoints by refusing to grant permission to paint or chalk messages on the street while allowing other activist groups to do so.” The suit was filed in federal court on November 18 on behalf of the Frederick Douglass Foundation (FDF) and Students for Life of America (SFLA). 

Pro-life activist at March for Life
Pro-life activist at March for Life; image courtesy of Maria Oswalt via Unsplash,

According to the suit, D.C. police discriminated against the groups “by preventing them from chalking pro-life messages on the sidewalk, while other groups have not been punished after painting and chalking messages on the streets and sidewalks of D.C. this year.” The suit, which was filed by Alliance Defending Freedom, further stated:

“The District of Columbia, like many American jurisdictions, prohibits the defacement of public property…While such laws are intended to prohibit criminal activity, they may not be used as a tool to silence disfavored speech. But this is precisely what the District and the Defendants have done.”

Outrage spread through the groups when two of their protestors were arrested back on August 1 after attempting to “write a pro-life message in chalk on the sidewalk outside a Washington, D.C., Planned Parenthood clinic.” While the two protestors were busy writing ‘Pre-born Black Lives Matter,’ “a phrase meant to draw attention to the abortion rate in the African-American community— in chalk on the sidewalk, a police officer told them if you continue chalking, you’re going to be placed under arrest,” the suit states.

The two protestors were Students For Life staff member Warner DePriest and a female college student. Despite the warning, they “continued writing, after which two other officers approached them and placed them in handcuffs.” Later, SFLA president Kristen Hawkins said the group “had applied for and received from police a permit to hold an assembly outside the clinic.” Additionally, Hawkins asked for permission to “paint ‘Black Pre-Born Lives Matter’ on the street outside the Planned Parenthood clinic on August 1” in a letter she sent to District Mayor Muriel Bowser on July 20.

Even though the group didn’t receive a written response from the mayor about the sidewalk paintings, Hawkins said a “police officer told the group directly that protestors would not be prevented from painting by police.” On top of that, in the days leading up to the demonstration, “police officials told Tina Whittington, executive vice president of SFLA, that a ‘pandora’s box’ had been opened regarding painting, and that although the group would not be stopped from painting during their demonstration, they should use a paint that would wash away quickly,” according to the lawsuit.

Despite essentially being told writing messages would be fine, when members of the group arrived outside the clinic on August 1, police informed them “they could use neither paint nor chalk to write a message.” In the end, the two protestors who began writing the chalk messages were “given a citation and then released,” according to the District Metropolitan Police Department. When issuing the citations, the police department “cited a city statute that makes it unlawful to write, mark, draw, or paint on public property without explicit permission from city authorities.”

As part of the lawsuit, the pro-life groups argue the District is “selectively enforcing the statute, pointing to other instances of painting on public property that the city had not sought to prevent.”

For example, earlier this year, Bowser “ordered part of 16th Street, near the White House, painted with the slogan ‘Black Lives Matter’ during mass anti-racism protests in the city…and protestors also painted ‘Defund the Police’ on the same street as an addition to Bowser’s message, and did not seek permits to do so,” the suit states

The suit also notes many other instances of graffiti and street art that ended up covering D.C. throughout the summer and states:

“No arrests were made and no one was cited for the graffiti, painting, chalking, or street art…despite the fact that such destruction of public property clearly violates the District Defacement Ordinance.”

In the letter she sent to the mayor, Hawkins said, “If you open the door to free speech on the city streets to one group, you can’t shut it to others.” 

J.R. Gurley, Frederick Douglass Foundation’s Virginia Chapter President chimed in and said:

“The city shouldn’t be able to silence and punish us for expressing ideas that it doesn’t agree with…Government officials can’t discriminate against peaceful displays on the basis of our beliefs about abortion when they have allowed other groups the same avenues to express their beliefs. If the mayor allows other messages to be painted and chalked, we should be able to express our views in the same manner without fear of unjust government punishment.”


Pro-life groups sue DC over chalk messages, alleging ‘viewpoint discrimination’

Pro-life protestors arrested for sidewalk chalk

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