(CN) – National Park Service rangers violated the free-speech rights of an anti-abortion activist when they arrested him for demonstrating near the Liberty Bell Center, the 3rd Circuit ruled.
Michael Anthony Marcavage, founder of Repent America ministries, led a group of about 20 protesters holding signs depicting graphic images of aborted fetuses. He used a bullhorn to preach to passersby and people waiting in line to enter the Liberty Bell Center, in the Independence National Historical Park in downtown Philadelphia.
Park rangers repeatedly asked Marcavage to move to a grassy area on the opposite side of the Liberty Bell Center, but Marcavage refused to budge.
He was then physically restrained and forcibly removed from the sidewalk outside the center. Marcavage was cited for violating the terms of a verbal permit, which he never requested, and for interfering with agency function.
He was found guilty of both misdemeanors and sentenced to 12 months’ probation.
On appeal, he successfully argued that his First Amendment rights had been violated. The federal appeals court said the evidence did not back up the government’s claim that Marcavage had to be forcibly removed and cited because his group was blocking pedestrian traffic, creating a safety issue.
“The video evidence, in particular, tells a very different story from the one the government evoked at trial,” Judge D. Michael Fisher wrote.
“[T]here is … no indication that these demonstrators were impeding, or even represented a threat to, pedestrian traffic,” he noted. “Perhaps most strikingly, the video reflects that several clutches of people unaffiliated with Marcavage’s demonstration were congregated in even greater concentrations than Marcavage’s group.”
Fisher said the apparent inconsistencies with enforcement point to “only one permissible view of the weight of the evidence: the rangers’ actions were motivated by the content of Marcavage’s speech.”
The government “impermissibly infringed” Marcavage’s free-speech rights, the court concluded, vacating his conviction.