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Anti-Choice Group Sues Jackson, Mississippi, Police Department, Claiming Free Speech Violations

Teddy Wilson

The complaint cites incidents dating back to 1996 in which the Jackson police detained, threatened arrest, and arrested Pro-Life Mississippi members while protesting what is today the state's only remaining abortion clinic, the Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

The anti-choice Life Legal Defense Foundation filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court Wednesday against the Jackson, Mississippi, police department. The suit, filed on behalf of Pro-Life Mississippi, accuses the department of “blatant and ongoing violation of free speech rights of pro-life advocates.”

The complaint cites incidents dating back to 1996 in which the Jackson police detained, threatened arrest, and arrested Pro-Life Mississippi members while protesting what is today the state’s only remaining abortion clinic, the Jackson Women’s Health Organization. According to the suit, in most cases the charges were dismissed but personal belongings confiscated by police were never returned, and there have been “frequent threats of arrest with no legal basis and continual harassment of pro-life advocates by police outside of the abortion vendor’s business.”

Life Legal Defense Foundation President and Executive Director Dana Cody said in a statement that the Jackson police “routinely harassed pro-life citizens, who have been peacefully exercising their legal right to oppose abortion in the public square and offer information about life-affirming alternatives to women seeking abortion.”

The Life Legal Defense Foundation is a California-based organization that has been targeting clinics that provide abortion care with lawsuits, including in neighboring Alabama, where the group has threatened to “[throw] up roadblocks” against the Alabama Women’s Center’s possible move to a new location in northwest Huntsville.

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The Jackson clinic is faced with near constant protests from anti-choice activists, and neither the state nor the city has a buffer zone law to protect the safety and privacy of patients, clinic staff, and others entering and leaving the facility. Michelle Colon, a volunteer escort at the clinic, described the hostile environment around the clinic to the Huffington Post; incidents have included car accidents due to protesters blocking the driveway into the clinic’s parking lot and protesters taking photographs and video of patients and staff. “This is not any type of protest behavior that would be tolerated at any other facility for any other cause in any other part of the country,” she said.

Mississippi’s legislature has passed a number of laws to restrict access to reproductive health care in the state. Republican Gov. Phil Bryant and state lawmakers have recently targeted the Jackson Women’s Health Organization with restrictions and regulations, including requiring abortion providers to get admitting privileges at a local hospital. Dr. Willie Parker, the physician who provides abortion care at the clinic, has been denied admitting privileges despite previously having had them in Chicago. During testimony before a U.S. Senate committee hearing earlier this month, he said that hospitals have declined to even evaluate his application.

It is common for hospitals to deny admitting privileges for abortion doctors for political or public relations reasons.

“Some people ask if I am concerned for my own safety,” Parker said in his testimony. “Of course I am. But I am less concerned for my safety than for what will happen to women if I am not there to provide the care [women] need and deserve.”

Gov. Bryant has said that it is his goal to “end abortion in Mississippi.

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