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Supreme Court Says Anti-Choice Protesters May Recover Attorney Fees Under Civil Rights Law

Jessica Mason Pieklo

In an unsigned per curiam opinion the Supreme Court allowed a group of anti-choice activists to rely on a civil rights statute to recover attorney fees in a challenge to attempts to shut their protests down.

In a little noticed per curium opinion issued just before the election, the Supreme Court held anti-abortion activists can use a civil rights law to claim “reasonable attorney’s fees” in a case where law enforcement stopped protesters from carrying graphic signs after complaints by residents. The law relied on by the anti-choice activists was intended to support civil rights groups filing suits over issues such as school desegregation, but anti-choice groups have embraced and appropriated the law as they look to ways to push back against protest restrictions.

Steven Lefemine and members of Columbia Christians for Life (CCL) routinely engaged in anti-choice demonstrations in Greenwood County and elsewhere in the state that include large, graphic signs containing pictures of aborted fetuses. After complaints from citizens about the signs a Greenwood County police officer informed the protesters that if they didn’t get rid of the signs they would be ticketed for breach of the peace. Lefemine and CCL challenged the police officer but eventually agreed to disband their protest for the day.

But as is often the case with anti-choice protests, the group continued to spar with law enforcement over its protests with graphic signs at the intersection. According to the complaint, law enforcement eventually threatened the group with economic penalties should they continue their protests. Out of fear of those economic sanctions the group claimed it chose not to protest in that county for the next two years and instead sued, arguing their First Amendment rights of speech and assembly had been violated. 

A federal judge agreed that the sheriff was wrong, but did not award damages or lawyer’s fees. The justices threw out that decision without hearing arguments, saying the legal decision that officers could not stop the protesters ‘‘supported the award of attorneys’ fees.’’ The case now goes back to the lower courts for a determination of those fees. 

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