For several years, anti-choice and pro-choice activists have been locked in a nightly digital battle for the amplified sound permit for 3220 Latrobe Drive, the home of A Preferred Women’s Health Center, North Carolina’s busiest abortion clinic.
Up to six days a week, a coalition of activists from various anti-choice groups including Cities4Life and Operation Save America obtain an amplified sound permit from the city. They then use a powerful public address system to yell at patients and blast the clinic with sermons and gospel music that are audible throughout the building, creating a siege-like atmosphere inside the clinic and a circus-like atmosphere outside.
In addition to guiding patients as they drive through the gauntlet of protesters into the clinic’s parking lot, the local clinic defense group ProChoice Charlotte applies for the sound permit to keep the anti-choice protesters from getting it.
Although the city claims there’s no bias allocating the permit, city data shows that on days when both groups email in seeking the permit, the anti-choice activists have historically gotten the permit almost 80 percent of the time. Rewire first reported the imbalance in the original documentary, Care in Chaos, which I co-directed.
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All that might be about to change.
Last week, Henri Simon-Pepper, the pseudonymous volunteer who coordinates permit applications for ProChoice Charlotte, informed Rewire that the city would no longer accept applications by email; all applications would have to be submitted through the city’s website. This procedural change is significant in that it may help level the permit playing field. The new system, which uses a web-based form, is designed to prevent automated permit submissions, which the anti-choicers had been using to monopolize the sound permits.
“I pushed for changes to the permit process to preserve fairness, improve efficiency, and to protect women’s access to comprehensive reproductive health care,” said Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts in a statement to Rewire issued Tuesday.
Daniel Parks, executive director of Cities4Life, said that while his associates would have appreciated a heads up from the city about the change, he agreed that the city was within its rights to change the application process. “We feel it’s within the city’s boundaries to do that,” Parks said.
On Monday, Mayor Roberts issued a broader statement on protecting access to reproductive health care in Charlotte from aggressive picketing. “While the protesters have a constitutional right to free speech, they do not have the right to block care for women, and they do not have the right to make an entire city street unsafe day after day, month after month,” Roberts said. ”The city has made important changes in terms of policy. They’re good first steps. However, the city can do more to make sure that our city ordinances are clear and their interpretation is consistent; we can train [the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department] so that enforcement is accurate and consistent; and we can make sure that our officers are impartial at all times. ‘No parking’ signs are another solution that should be reconsidered.”
The issues addressed in Roberts’ statement were covered in our Care in Chaos documentary.
The permitting process sounds arcane, but there are important issues at stake. Amplified sound permits are nondiscretionary in Charlotte, which means the city must dole them out on a strictly first-come, first-served basis, with no regard for the applicant’s ideology, group affiliation, or track record of getting permits. City Attorney Robert Hagemann told a business meeting of City Council on March 27 that the old process was set up about 15 years ago in consultation with various advocacy groups. The goal was to create an equitable framework where no one could monopolize amplified sound at any given protest site.
In practice, however, the local anti-choice movement effectively monopolized the permits under the old system through a technological loophole.
Although the city’s own data showed that, under the old system, the pro-choice protesters only got the permit 22 percent of the time on days when both they and anti-choice activists applied, volunteers from ProChoice Charlotte told me that the facts on the ground were even more unfavorable than the official numbers suggested. ProChoice Charlotte supplied Rewire with internal records and sent emails to show that they have been applying for—and failing to secure—the permit on many more days than the city’s data suggests. That implies that the ratio of permits given to pro-choice protesters is much lower than the official figures say. The official figures mostly count applications from the clinic itself and omit almost all applications by the volunteers of ProChoice Charlotte. This is puzzling because permit coordinator Danielle Strayer says that the city’s spreadsheet is a complete list of all applications received for 3220 Latrobe Drive for the relevant period. Strayer did not return Rewire’s calls for comment on this question, and an email to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department spokesman Robert Tufano seeking comment was not returned as of press time.
Simon-Pepper provided his personal records to Rewire and to Charlotte city government. His records document scores of applications during the period covered by the official city spreadsheet, but the spreadsheet only shows one application under his given name and one application under a pseudonym of his.
“In 2017, I have submitted a request for the sound amplification permit on Latrobe Drive 171 days. Of those requests I have been approved six times, less than 1 percent,” Simon-Pepper wrote in an email to the mayor of Charlotte and the city council on July 27.
The anti-choice groups’ outsize success rate under the old system can be attributed at least in part to technology. The permit went to the first email to hit the permit coordinator’s inbox after midnight. So, the anti-choicers used a single email address to bombard that inbox with an automated stream of about 300 emails each night between 11:59 p.m. and 12:02 a.m. An email to that address was not returned. Asked who controls applications for the anti-choice activists, Parks responded, “Unfortunately, that’s information that I am not inclined to give at this time.”
The pro-choice activists lacked mass emailing technology. Simon-Pepper stayed up late to send several dozen emails for his group by hand, sometimes assisted by other volunteers sending from their homes, and a local nonprofit sent out three automated emails on the pro-choice group’s behalf.
According to computer scientist Bill Chu of the University of Charlotte North Carolina, sending an automated barrage of emails just before the deadline increases the load on the server and reduces the odds that another sender will slip an email in at the stroke of midnight.
“A human’s never going to be able to win at this game,” said Ian Mathews, the CEO of the tech firm Redivis, which creates interactive visualizations of crowdsourced data. Mathews added that he was surprised the pro-choice people ever got the permit under the old system given how heavily the technical odds appeared to be stacked against them.
Simon-Pepper sent in his usual round of applications late last Tuesday night, and later the following day he was informed that the city had changed its process for accepting applications.
The City has added the following proviso to its permit application page: “Please note that this application process does not allow the use of ‘robo-sending’ to submit noise permit applications.”
Simon-Pepper considers the change a partial win. The new setup will prevent the anti-choice activists from flooding the city with emails to increase their odds of getting the permit. Simon-Pepper notes that it would be difficult to create an automated system to apply through the web form because the system would have to defeat the website’s “I Am Not a Robot” security feature.
However, Simon-Pepper worries that a technological fix won’t solve the problem if human beings are allocating the permits inequitably. He says that in the seven nights he and his fellow volunteers have applied through the website, they have only gotten the permit once.
Simon-Pepper says he will continue to monitor his success rate under the new system, but he favors even more sweeping reforms. “I am pushing for either no permits outside a medical facility, or a buffer zone like many states and cities have,” he said.