A public charter school in Washington, D.C., is suing a handful of people who have for months protested the construction of a Planned Parenthood clinic that neighbors elementary and middle school campuses.
School officials have accused the demonstrators of harassing students and parents in front of the school on several occasions. Meanwhile, many of the defendants say the allegations are exaggerated and in some cases false.
Two Rivers Public Charter School filed the complaint on Wednesday in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia. The lawsuit lists six defendants but only five by name, including Robert Weiler Jr., who in 2006 was sentenced to five years in prison for plotting to bomb and shoot up a Maryland abortion clinic.
“Laid bare, Defendants’ plan is to stop the construction of the adjacent Planned Parenthood facility by engaging in a concerted effort to aggressively confront students, harm their emotional well-being, upset their parents and guardians, and ultimately damage the school’s reputation within the community,” reads the complaint.
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The school seeks injunctive relief “to prevent Defendants’ extreme and outrageous conduct” and is asking the court to bar defendants from demonstrating within a “reasonable distance” of the school during school hours and from engaging children under the age of 12.
The lawsuit alleges that on a handful of occasions, these defendants stood in front of the school and yelled at students that the future Planned Parenthood clinic “kills kids next door.” The complaint also accuses the demonstrators of “exhibiting large signs and gruesome photos purporting to be aborted fetuses” and of obstructing students’ safe passage into the school.
Abortion opponents since the summer have demonstrated the construction site in D.C.’s Northeast neighborhood NoMa, as Rewire reported previously. Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, DC has worked to convert the former food storage warehouse into a full-service reproductive health clinic that offers abortion care by next spring.
The defendants say they are within their First Amendment rights to protest on the public sidewalk and deny claims that they have harassed students.
Weiler told Rewire in a phone interview that the lawsuit is “bogus.”
Weiler held a banner outside Two Rivers elementary school during an early-morning protest on November 16, when parents were dropping off students, according to the complaint. The lawsuit includes a picture of Weiler standing near the school holding a large bright-yellow banner featuring cartoonish images of frowning baby faces and the statement: “THEY KILL BABIES NEARBY! Tell your parents to stop them.”
Weiler, 35, said this was the only time he has protested the Planned Parenthood site and said he did not speak to any students that day. He said police were present and did not tell him or the other demonstrators to halt their activities.
“The only reason I’m named in the lawsuit is to bring a little bit more media attention because of my past,” he said, adding that he no longer engages in illegal or violent activity.
The lawsuit accuses Jonathan Darnel, another defendant—just this week—of jogging after middle school students and forcing in their palms a flier soliciting attendance to a neighborhood commission meeting, to voice opposition to the Planned Parenthood center.
Darnel identifies himself as an independent anti-abortion advocate and has worked for the Maryland chapter of the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, a California-based group that displays graphic images of aborted fetuses at anti-abortion protests. Darnel declined a request for an interview, but told Rewire in a text message that he did not instigate violence against anyone and did not “force” students to take his pamphlet.
“They took them freely like any other person would,” he said.
The complaint includes an email Darnel allegedly sent to Two Rivers administrators, telling officials they would come to regret having Planned Parenthood as a neighbor, listing among other things that Planned Parenthood would try to hook Two Rivers middle school students “on the perverse sexual lifestyle that they promote.”
And, he noted, there would be protesters.
“It means anti-abortion protesters (like myself) outside Planned Parenthood and at the intersection of Florida Avenue and 4th Street, decrying the child-killing that is going on just a few hundred feet away. Many of us will carry images of aborted children to awaken the deadened conscience of the community,” the email reads.
Lauren Handy, another defendant, also contested many of the claims made against her in the lawsuit. Handy directs the Washington, D.C. chapter of the Anti-Choice Project, a national group that advocates against abortion. She told Rewire in a phone interview that the complaint contains “half truths, exaggerations, and sometimes outright lies.”
The complaint alleges that during one protest in late August, Handy and other protesters displayed large posters of dismembered fetuses so students and parents entering the school would see them and that she shouted phrases to students, including a 3-year-old, such as, “Tell your parents you don’t want to go to school next to a baby killing center.”
Handy said the lawsuit conflates different events. At the August protest, she said, it was not a school day and she was showing the aborted fetal images to construction workers and passing cars. She said she has video to corroborate her version of events.
Handy said she and other protesters did stage a demonstration aimed at students and parents on two days in November, to “break parents out of the apathy.” She said they chanted about Planned Parenthood being a baby-killing center but did not display images of aborted fetuses. Handy said she has no future plans to protest in front of the school. She also noted that she did not know Weiler before she met him at one of the protests and was unaware of his violent past.
The lawsuit also names Ruby Nicdao, who works for the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform’s Virginia chapter, and Larry Cirignano, the D.C. representative for the Children First Foundation, which sponsors specialty “Choose Life” license plates and says it distributes proceeds from the plates to anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers and maternity homes.
The D.C. government is treating these allegations seriously. Security guards checked bags at the neighborhood commission meeting advertised in Darnel’s fliers this week, something they don’t normally do. One of the commissioners, Christopher Miller, donned a bright-pink “I Stand With Planned Parenthood” T-shirt throughout the meeting, which was attended by dozens of activists opposing the new clinic.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) told The Washington Post that she is working with Two Rivers school officials and police to protect the students and the community. And D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine told the Post his office would investigate and prosecute any illegal conduct.
Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, DC has applauded the charter school for filing the complaint, calling protesters’ actions targeting students “inappropriate” and “shameful.”
“This shameful tactic is a desperate attempt by protesters to halt construction on Planned Parenthood’s new health center and administrative headquarters in Northeast D.C.,” Dr. Laura Meyers, CEO of the D.C. Planned Parenthood affiliate, said in a statement. “It’s flatly inappropriate for protestors to involve small children in an adult conversations by screaming at them and showing graphic images that are clearly inappropriate—and downright scary—for children as they come and go from school.”
The lawsuit identifies six protesters, but the injunction would extend to organizations or people who “act in concert with the Defendants” and engage in similar behavior.
Other activists protesting the new Planned Parenthood are concerned by the lawsuit’s broad language, such as the Rev. Pat Mahoney. This summer, the Presbyterian minister founded Abortion-Free DC, a loose network of activists who have staged protests and prayer vigils in front of the construction site and leaned on local contractors to abandon the project.
However, Mahoney told Rewire that he has always instructed activists meeting with his group not to engage students or teachers at Two Rivers, and not to display signs with graphic images. Mahoney said he agrees with Two Rivers that Weiler’s presence near the school is concerning given his violent history. He said he thinks the majority of the actions outlined in the complaint describe protected free speech, albeit “a violation of common sense and decency.”
“Our concern is that that sidewalk in front of Planned Parenthood remains open to peaceful First Amendment activities,” he said.