ACLJ received notice today from the New York City Law Department that it would withdraw summonses wrongfully issued by the NYPD to three residents of Brooklyn, New York for peacefully holding up pro-life signs on a public sidewalk near a public high school. All three protesters were holding pro-life signs designed to educate the public about the harsh realities of abortion when they were confronted by police.
The officers handcuffed all three individuals, drove them to the precinct where they were held for approximately one hour, and cited each for violation of New York Penal Code 240.35(5), which prohibits loitering “in or about school grounds.”
Convinced that pro-life protest was not “loitering,” the protesters contacted the ACLJ. We immediately wrote New York’s Law Department and demanded that the charges be dismissed, and the protesters be permitted to continue their peaceful free speech activities on the public sidewalks in front of New York schools without further interference. In our letter, we reminded the department that the Supreme Court has made clear “that the public sidewalk adjacent to school grounds may not be declared off limits for expressive activity by members of the public.” Grayned v. City of Rockford, 408 U.S. 104, 118 (1972). Once more “speech on ‘matters of public concern’ . . . is ‘at the heart of the First Amendment’s protection.’” Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders, Inc., 472 U.S. 749, 758-759, 105 S. Ct. 2939, 86 L. Ed. 2d 593 (1985) (opinion of Powell, J.) (quoting First Nat. Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765, 776, 98 S. Ct. 1407, 55 L. Ed. 2d 707 (1978)). Accordingly, “speech on public issues occupies the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values, and is entitled to special protection.” Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138, 145, 103 S. Ct. 1684, 75 L. Ed. 2d 708 (1983) (internal quotation marks omitted).
Without question the protesters speech is protected under the First Amendment, but this is not the first time NYPD has wrongfully used the anti-loitering statute to silence protest. NYPD’s continued classification of such speech as loitering is troubling, and ACLJ will continue to respectfully and vigilantly protect the right of citizens to educate our nation about the tragic reality of abortion.