Pro-lifers praying outside a Planned Parenthood in Arkansas say their free speech rights are under attack by the Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department.
According to Thomas More Society attorneys, during the Fayetteville 40 Days for Life’s eighth peaceful prayer vigil outside the Fayetteville Planned Parenthood abortion facility along Highway 265, an Arkansas State Highway and Transportation Department employee told the pro-life volunteers that they could not display any signs during their vigil, threatening each participant with a fine if they continued to hold their signs.
Thomas More Society contends that this demand is a blatant violation of these pro-lifers’ First Amendment rights.
“40 Days for Life volunteers are engaging in First Amendment-protected speech on a clear matter of public concern in a traditional public forum,” said Corrina Konczal, Thomas More Society Associate Counsel. “Forbidding pro-lifers from holding signs on public property—simply because it happens to be next to a highway—flies in the face of 75 years of Supreme Court precedent.”
For each of the eight campaigns that 40 Days for Life Fayetteville has conducted, coordinators have contacted the Fayetteville police to ensure that they would be in compliance with all relevant laws during their prayer vigil. In regards to displaying signs, the police department’s only requirement was that the pro-lifers not leave their signs on the public property while no one is present. The volunteers have always complied with this request.
However, this week a Transportation Department employee told volunteers of 40 Days for Life Fayetteville that because Highway 265 is a state highway, vigil participants could not post signs in the ground or even hold signs while standing along the road. The official further told them that all signs must be state approved, even though the vigil participants have been standing only on the public property. An official returned on a subsequent day, stating that any person holding a sign would be fined between $25-$100.
Thomas More Society’s letter states that “The Department’s interpretation of the relevant law . . . completely bans the 40 Days for Life volunteers—and an unknown multitude of other citizens who may wish to participate in unrelated events—from expressing their views along the State’s many highways.”
“Without the ability to hold signs explaining why we are outside of the Planned Parenthood abortion clinic, we lose the public outreach of our 40 Days for Life campaign,” said Sheena Archambault, 40 Days for Life Fayetteville coordinator. “People don’t know why we’re standing on the sidewalk if we’re not holding pro-life signs. Our free speech has been silenced, but we hope to be able to proclaim the pro-life message again soon.”
Thomas More Society has requested a response from the Arkansas Transportation Department by March 3, 2015, with acknowledgment of the pro-lifers’ right to hold signs and reassurance that their rights to free speech and free assembly will be protected for the remainder of this vigil and for all other public assemblies in the future.