Pro-life advocates won a victory in Mississippi as the Jackson City Council repealed a one-year-old ordinance that imposed restrictions on protesting or advocating outside an abortion clinic.
In 2019, the City Council approved an ordinance that prevented people from protesting within 15 feet of Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the city’s only abortion provider, and using speakers or amplified noise within 100 feet of the facility. The ordinance also prevented “sidewalk advocacy” by prohibiting advocates from getting within 8 feet of a patient who was within 100 feet of the clinic without their prior consent.
Violating the ordinance carried a penalty of up to 90 days in jail, a fine of up to $1,000, or both.
After the ordinance was passed, a group called Sidewalk Advocates for Life filed a lawsuit stating that it violated their right to free speech. The lawsuit claimed that the ordinance was “content-based regulation of speech, as it prevents only certain types of speech.” These advocates encourage women not to have an abortion by presenting alternatives to abortion.
Then the Jackson City Council repealed the ordinance.
Aaron Rice, director of the Mississippi Justice Institute, said, “We are pleased that the city of Jackson has decided to do the right thing and end this unconstitutional restriction on free expression. This is a major victory for free speech for Jackson and the state of Mississippi.”
Not everyone was pleased with the reversal. Clinic owner Diane Derzis said of the City Council, “We’re not willing to do the right thing. We’re not willing to do it for the women who walk in that door or the women who work in the clinic or the people who walk on the street or the businesses that are nearby.”
The decision was in line with a unanimous 2014 Supreme Court ruling on a Massachusetts law preventing abortion clinic protests within 35 feet of the clinic. The court ruled the law was “substantially more speech than necessary to achieve the Commonwealth’s asserted interests.” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote,
“The Commonwealth has available to it a variety of approaches that appear capable of serving its interests, without excluding individuals from areas historically open for speech and debate.”
The Sidewalk Advocates’ lawsuit made the point that the ordinance harmed those patronizing the clinic because it denied them “access to useful information concerning the alternatives to abortion.” The lawsuit also made another interesting claim:
“At times, Appellants must shout near the property of the abortion facility, in order to be heard by persons patronizing the abortion facility. This is sometimes made necessary because the abortion facility plays loud music outside of its building in order to prevent persons patronizing the facility from hearing Appellants’ speech.”
Derzis claims that the city council refused to do the right thing, that they wouldn’t stand up for the women patronizing the facility. But shouldn’t we want women to have access to all pertinent information and alternatives before making such a crucial decision? Having an abortion is something that will likely haunt a woman for the rest of her life, with numerous studies showing that the decision can have significant and long-term impacts on both her emotional and physical well-being. So, shouldn’t even abortion clinics view abortion as the last resort?
Pro-choice advocates used to counter the pro-life argument by claiming that they wanted abortion to be safe and legal but also rare. Abortion was purported by many to be a necessary tragedy that was needed only when a woman had no other options. Now it seems that abortion advocates demand abortion as the only option. Any attempt to make abortion less common or to provide a woman with information on alternatives to abortion is treated as an assault on women.
This is why freedom of speech is so important. People have agendas and will seek to silence opposition, not in the best interest of the public but in the best interest of their agenda. It is imperative that we protect this right to free speech, not only for the speaker, but for the hearer as well.