3rd Circuit Rules on 3 Abortion-Protest Cases | Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, November 29, 2023
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3rd Circuit Rules on 3 Abortion-Protest Cases

(CN) - The 3rd Circuit ruled for two abortion-clinic protesters and against a third in a set of consolidated rulings involving the rights of protesters in York, Pa. "The intersection of the various First Amendment rights at play here is reminiscent of a law school exam," Judge Rendell wrote.

In the first case, protester Edward Snell was arrested for disorderly conduct after he stepped into a busy alley outside the Planned Parenthood clinic to approach a patron. The citation was later dismissed.

Snell sued city and police officials for allegedly violating his First Amendment rights. The district court dismissed his claims, saying the restriction against blocking the alley was "neutral" and "generally applicable." The court added that it was narrowly tailored to further the state's interest in promoting public safety and maintaining traffic flow in the alley.

But the federal appeals court in Philadelphia noted that the restriction could not be described as "generally applicable," because it was not enforced against Planned Parenthood escorts and patrons.

The court vacated judgment for the defendants and remanded on the basis that a jury could reasonably side with Snell on many of his constitutional claims.

However, the court affirmed dismissal of Snell's municipal liability claims against the city and city officials.

The court also reversed summary judgment against John McTernan, another Planned Parenthood protester. He sued the city and officials after he was allegedly threatened with arrest for walking in the alley.

The district court similarly dismissed his First Amendment claims on the grounds that the restriction was content-neutral and narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest.

But McTernan echoed Snell's argument that he was targeted solely because of his anti-abortion views. The 3rd Circuit agreed that this presented a controversy and remanded.

In the case of protester John Holman, however, the court affirmed summary judgment for the city and police officers, because Holman "fail[ed] to demonstrate any restriction on his First Amendment rights."

He was arrested for trespassing for stepping briefly into the clinic's parking lot, but otherwise enjoyed unfettered access to the alley, where he exercised his free-speech rights.

"Although we are somewhat troubled by Holman's arrest for a de minimis offense," Judge Rendell wrote, "no evidence suggests that [the arresting officer] acted based on an improper motive, or that the arrest would 'deter a person of ordinary firmness from the exercise of his First Amendment rights.'"

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