John Roswell, who has conducted pro-life sidewalk counseling in Baltimore for years, has filed a federal lawsuit against the city, claiming that its regulations requiring him to get a permit from the government to display pro-life messages, as well as permission from Planned Parenthood, violates his First Amendment rights.
Roswell has been doing sidewalk counseling in Baltimore for almost five years. It is his religious belief that abortion kills a human child and thus he feels he must tell women about the dangers of abortion. He seeks to speak with each woman and, in kindness, “establish a personal rapport” with them. As part of his activities, he displays small A-frame signs that bear messages, such as “Unborn Babies Are Human and Feel Pain,” and pictures of babies in the womb at six and nine weeks gestation.
Despite his counseling being done on public property, the city of Baltimore cited and fined Roswell for having the signs on public property. He was told he would need to have a “Minor Privilege and sign permit.” The Minor Privilege permit application must be reviewed by no less than four city departments, a process that can take anywhere from three to six weeks per department, and then approved by the Right of Way Services Division chief, the Department of Transportation director, and the Board of Estimates.
Each city employee may deny or approve applications based on various criteria, most of which isn’t publicly available. The approving body is able to revoke the permit at any time at its discretion.
Roswell was never able to get a permit, however, because of the other requirement for receiving a permit: obtaining the adjacent landowner’s approval. Roswell does his sidewalk counseling near a Planned Parenthood facility so he can speak to women entering or leaving the facility. Under Baltimore regulations, Roswell would need Planned Parenthood’s approval to have or display his signs.
Attorneys with Thomas More Society have now filed a lawsuit on behalf of Roswell in federal district court, alleging that the permit requirements violate Roswell’s First Amendments rights to freely express his beliefs in public. Cameron Guenzel, special counsel with Thomas More Society, stated, “With its restrictive permit process, where the requirement of a permit is not warranted, the City of Baltimore is violating John Roswell’s guaranteed rights to free speech and exercise of religion.”
It is a blatant violation of free speech for the government to place this burden on free expression. An American should not have to get approval from multiple government authorities to express their views, authorities who can stop them from free expression for nearly any reason. Furthermore, allowing the adjacent landowner to have any say over whether an American can have signs allows them to censor speech. Planned Parenthood has every motivation to silence Roswell’s views since those views are the polar opposite of those expressed by an abortion clinic. What’s more, Roswell wasn’t counseling on Planned Parenthood’s property so they should have no ability to stop him from counseling women about the reality of abortion.
Americans don’t need government permission to express themselves; the Constitution is all the permission they need. Allowing government employees and powerful interest groups to stop people from speaking up is dangerous.
Proverbs 31:8-9 says,
“Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all the unfortunate. Open your mouth, judge righteously, and defend the rights of the afflicted and needy.”
Unborn children in the womb need someone to speak up for them and that is what Roswell is trying to do. Abortion kills babies in the womb. That’s not something that should continue in the city of Baltimore without someone speaking up and speaking out. The court should rule in favor of free speech and stop this governmental effort to censor disfavored voices and beliefs.
Ready to dive deeper into the intersection of faith and policy? Head over to our Theology of Politics series page where we’ve published several long-form pieces that will help Christians navigate where their faith should direct them on political issues.