The Colorado Supreme Court let stand an injunction that prohibits protesters from publicly displaying graphic anti-abortion images outside a Denver church. It’s a strange case that shows anti-abortion protesters will literally shout at anyone at anytime in the name of “life.”
According to court documents, Kenneth Tyler Scott and Clifton Powell set up an anti-choice, anti-homosexuality demonstration outside of St. John’s Church in the Wilderness on Palm Sunday. The demonstration mostly took place on the public street and sidewalk across the street from the church, and while the church was conducting an outdoor Palm Sunday service.
But, for reasons not explained by the court, Scott and Powell started their show on Church property. The two began shouting and waiving around graphic, doctored images of “fetuses.” Scott was so loud he disrupted the services. The images the two carried were so graphic that, according to the court, those attending the services began started to cry and tremble in fear and anger. The court made sure to note children attending the services were scared and as many as 100 parishioners left in response.
The lower court issued an injunction and the protestors appealed, arguing that Snyder v. Phelps, the Supreme Court that affirmed the First Amendment right of the Westboro Baptist Church members to protest the funerals of military service members protected their demonstrations here. The Colorado courts disagreed and said that while Snyder affirmed First Amendment rights to protest, it did not create a blanket right to disrupt private events in the name of free speech. Furthermore, the Colorado court added, the presence of children at the church services changes the nature of the analysis since their presence can create additional justifications for imposing some limits on the speech of others.
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Anti-choice activists have criticized the decision as one that blatantly disregards the protest rights of activists. But as the opinion, and the reactions to the opinion make clear, the case highlights why buffer zones work, even if they are flawed, and why we need diligent enforcement of the FACE Act. Protesters are willing to disrupt church services to the point young children are terrified and crying in the name of anti-abortion advocacy, and history tells us what drastic and often violent ends they will take to disrupt clinic activities.