On January 29, 2018, a federal judge told the New York Attorney General that leafleting is a “form of really protected speech,” and that sidewalks are recognized as the “quintessential public forum.” The words from the bench underscored the arguments of Thomas More Society Special Counsel Martin Cannon. Cannon is defending a group of pro-life advocates who have been sued by Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman in a federal lawsuit that accuses them of threats and violence against abortion clinic patients.
A group of pro-life advocates with Church @ the Rock in Brooklyn has been targeted for ongoing sidewalk counseling, prayer, and protest activities outside of a Jamaica, New York, abortion clinic. Yesterday’s hearing was a request by the Thomas More Society for the court to dismiss the lawsuit against the church members involved.
District Judge Carol Bagley Amon skeptically noted that handing out pamphlets is a form of protected speech and that sidewalks are the quintessential public forum. She questioned Assistant Attorney General Sandra Pullman on the definition of harassment. The state’s interpretation focused in part on the reaction of a person to another’s actions, something that, according to Cannon, did not line up with New York’s harassment law or common sense. “If harassment is defined by someone’s reaction, you can’t know you’ve committed the offense until after the fact,” Cannon said. Arguing that the New York City harassment law is dangerously vague, Cannon suggested Schneiderman’s lawsuit makes the point. “If harassment is whatever people in power say it is, we are protected only by sentiment, not by law.”
“We expect to be vindicated,” stated Rev. Kenneth Griepp, a defendant in the lawsuit and the senior pastor at Church @ the Rock. “As a voice for the unborn, we are committed to raising awareness about the over 3,500 children who are being murdered every day here in America. We do so as peaceful people of God. Because the Thomas More Society attorneys understand that, they are able to defend us and protect the rights we are guaranteed under the US Constitution and First Amendment, including the freedom to speak out against what we believe to be the grave error of abortion and to offer life-saving alternatives to women and their children.”
The judge took issue with the prosecution’s reference to what they labelled as “annoying behavior.” Amon commented that if harassment charges could be brought for being annoying, “I could sue all of you here today.”
Cannon added, “The prosecution’s loose handling of a serious charge suggests the case is solely intended to discourage opposition to abortion. There are no instances of the force, threat of force, physical obstruction, following, or harassing that Schneiderman claims to have occurred.”
Schneiderman’s lawsuit, filed in June 2017, seeks an end to what he says is “a weekly pattern of threatening, obstructive, and violent activity by a network of anti-abortion protestors.” He claimed to have received “complaints of the protesters’ extremely aggressive behavior.” He called the church members’ efforts to counsel women considering abortion and to advocate for the rights of the unborn “horrifying” and “illegal.”
Schneiderman’s support of the abortion industry is well publicized. In April 2017, he openly opposed any defunding of Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers, proclaiming, “I was proud to lead a coalition of attorneys general in filing an amicus brief against the Ohio state law that would defund Planned Parenthood.”
“These pro-life advocates are life-affirming Christians who peacefully counsel women considering abortion. They conduct themselves reasonably and compassionately, offering alternatives and very real assistance to women and couples willing to listen,” stated Cannon. The Thomas More Society is representing 10 members of Church @ the Rock in Brooklyn, who are among the 13 defendants named in the suit. The congregation has been witnessing for life outside the abortion facility nearly every Saturday since 2012.
Read background on the Thomas More Society’s involvement with People of the State of New York v. Griepp et al here.