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Pro-life groups chalk up free speech victory at DC Circuit

ADF attorneys represent Frederick Douglass Foundation, Students for Life of America in federal lawsuit
Sidewalk chalk

WASHINGTON – In a major free speech ruling Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld the First Amendment rights of two pro-life organizations that sought to chalk a pro-life message on a city sidewalk.

Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing members of the Frederick Douglass Foundation and Students for Life of America filed suit after Washington, D.C., officials refused to grant members of the two groups permission to chalk their message on a city sidewalk even though the city allowed other groups to paint messages the officials preferred on other city streets.

“Washington officials can’t censor messages they disagree with. The right to free speech is for everyone, and we’re pleased the D.C. Circuit agreed that the Frederick Douglass Foundation and Students for Life should be able to exercise their constitutionally protected freedom to peacefully share their views the same as anyone else,” said ADF Senior Counsel Erin Hawley, vice president of the ADF Center for Life and Regulatory Practice, who argued before the court on behalf of the pro-life organizations. “Every American deserves for their voice to be heard as they engage in important cultural and political issues of the day.”

“The government may not enforce the laws in a manner that picks winners and losers in public debates,” the D.C. Circuit wrote in its opinion reversing the decision of a lower court in The Frederick Douglass Foundation v. District of Columbia. “It would undermine the First Amendment’s protections for free speech if the government could enact a content-neutral law and then discriminate against disfavored viewpoints under the cover of prosecutorial discretion.”

In June 2020, the D.C. mayor commissioned a mural reading “Black Lives Matter” in permanent yellow paint. Protestors quickly added their “Defund the Police” message to the mural and painted other permanent protest art on D.C. streets and private property. The city left these favored messages in place for months. Yet when the Frederick Douglass Foundation and Students for Life of America sought to use chalk to display a different message—“Black Pre-Born Lives Matter”—on a public street outside of the D.C. Planned Parenthood facility, police arrested them.

“The city shouldn’t allow some groups to participate in the public forum and shun others from doing so just because city officials disagree with their viewpoint,” said Frederick Douglass Foundation Virginia Chapter President J.R. Gurley. “The First Amendment protects our right to peacefully share our pro-life message in Washington, D.C. without fear of unjust government punishment and thankfully, the D.C. Circuit agreed.”

“It’s very encouraging that there was a unanimous 3-0 decision in favor of the free speech rights of pro-life students, peacefully protesting in our nation’s capital,” said Students for Life of America President Kristan Hawkins. “Viewpoint discrimination is un-American, and, as the case proceeds, we look forward to learning more about how D.C. officials picked winners and losers in their enforcement. Free speech rights you’re afraid to use don’t really exist, and we will keep fighting for the rights of our students to stand up for the preborn and their mothers, and against the predatory abortion industry led by Planned Parenthood.”

Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, parental rights, and the sanctity of life.

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Erin Hawley, Senior Counsel, Vice President of Center for Life & Regulatory Practice
Erin Morrow Hawley
Senior Counsel, Vice President of Center for Life & Regulatory Practice
Erin Morrow Hawley serves as senior counsel and vice president of the Center for Life and regulatory practice at Alliance Defending Freedom.