BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) – Focusing on the dictionary definition of harassment as meaning to annoy, a federal judge challenged New York on Monday about its suit against 14 men and women who protested outside a Queens women’s clinic.
“[The defendants and their lawyers] have got to know clearly what harassment means,” U.S. District Judge Carol Bagley Amon said. “What is it? This is a little troubling. I don’t know what it is.”
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman brought the suit seven months ago in Brooklyn after conducting a year-long investigation into protests that have been held nearly every Saturday since 2012 outside the Choices Women’s Medical Center in Queens.
Schneiderman described a five-year “barrage of unwanted physical contact, as well as verbal abuse, threats of harm, and lies,” but Iowa-based First Amendment attorney Martin Cannon told Judge Amon this morning that the harassment charges are unconstitutionally vague.
Assistant Attorney General Sandra Pullman faced an uphill battle defending the case after she quoted the Webster’s definition of harassment as “repeated or persistent behavior that annoys or alarms someone.”
If harassment charges could be brought for being “annoying,” Amon said to laughter in her Brooklyn courtroom, “I could sue all of you here today.”
Earlier in the hearing, Amon threw a number of hypothetical scenarios at Pullman to test her definition.
If a person followed a patient down the sidewalk, politely repeating, “You should consider keeping your baby,” Amon asked, would that be harassment?
What if the protester stayed 3 feet away from the patient, Amon asked. What if someone followed you down the street, repeatedly telling you they liked your haircut? Would that be harassment?
Defense attorney Roger Gannam balked later at Pullman’s argument that the listener’s reaction should clue in the perpetrator that his behavior was unwelcome.
“If harassment is established only by its effect on the listeners,” Gannam said, “you wouldn’t know you committed harassment until after the fact.”
While Assistant Attorney General Nancy Trasande noted her office’s goal to “protect and advance the health of women in this state,” defense attorney Cannon said these objectives must be balanced against the interests of the protesters.
“It cannot be said that there is no legitimate purpose of [the defendants’] actions,” Cannon argued.
Several of Cannon’s clients, including Kenneth Griepp, are pastors or members of an evangelical Christian congregation in Brooklyn called Church at the Rock.
Posing a hurdle to the state’s case, Judge Amon emphasized that leafletting is a “form of really protected speech,” and that sidewalks are recognized as the “quintessential public forum.”
Assistant Attorney General Pullman insisted in her argument, however, that protesters “are not free to persist and continue to force their ideas, literature, pamphlets” on an unwilling listener.
Patrick Bradford, appearing for the New York City Council, said the Council’s statute on harassment defines it as a person with intent annoying or alarming another person; using physical contact or attempting or threatening to; or “repeatedly committing acts which alarm or seriously annoy such other person and which serve no legitimate purpose.”
Neither attorney Cannon nor representatives for the New York Office of the Attorney General responded to requests for comment Monday afternoon.