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Anti-abortion groups sue D.C. after being stopped from painting 'Black Pre-Born Lives Matter' mural

The groups argue the city government is using public property laws to 'silence disfavored speech'

Updated: November 20, 2020 - 11:46am

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Two anti-abortion groups have filed a lawsuit against the District of Columbia in federal court after the municipality denied them the right to paint an anti-abortion message on a public street over the summer.

The issue arose following the city's sanctioning of Black Lives Matter Plaza, across which "Black Lives Matter" was painted in yellow in June. The Frederick Douglass Foundation and Students for Life of America wanted to paint "Black Pre-Born Lives Matter" on the street outside of a Planned Parenthood site near Capitol Hill. However, they were not explicitly granted permission by the city to do so.

The groups' suit claims that a member of the Metropolitan Police Department told them that officers would not be able to stop them from painting or drawing their slogan. According to the suit, the officer told them that D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser had "opened Pandora's Box," and no one would be able to stop them.

But on August 1, when anti-abortion activists arrived for a rally, police officers told them that they would be arrested for writing their message – even in chalk. Two members of Students for Life of America were in fact arrested for chalking. 

The suit, which is being brought by two Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys, claims that the city selectively applied its laws against the defacement of public property "as a tool to silence disfavored speech." 

"Government officials can’t discriminate against peaceful displays on the basis of our beliefs about abortion when they have allowed other groups the same avenues to express their beliefs. If the mayor allows other messages to be painted and chalked, we should be able to express our views in the same manner without fear of unjust government punishment," wrote J.R. Gurley, the Virginia Chapter President of the Frederick Douglass Foundation in a press release. "The city shouldn’t be able to silence and punish us for expressing ideas that it doesn’t agree with."

Earlier this year, Judicial Watch filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the city when government official failed to respond to repeated requests for information pertaining to the cost, communications, and procedures surrounding the Black Lives Matter mural. The city responded in court that FOIA timelines have been altered due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

The decision to paint "Black Lives Matter" across 16th Street Northwest, just blocks from the White House, was a city-commissioned mural, which appears to put it the category of government speech rather than free speech. However, in the anti-abortion groups' suit, the plaintiffs point out that the city allowed protestors to also paint "Defund the Police" on the plaza, which appears to allow room for a free speech legal argument to be made. 

"Your original decision to paint ‘Black Lives Matter’ on the street is government speech. However, your decision to allow protestors to paint ‘Defund the Police’ opened the streets up as a public forum. You are not permitted to discriminate on the basis of viewpoint in making determinations relating to public assemblies in public fora," reads the suit. 

"The Constitution guarantees the right to peacefully express our views in the public square. If there is disagreement over contentious issues, the answer is always more speech, not censorship, fines, or jail time," said Students for Life of America President Kristan Hawkins.