FORT MYERS, Fla. — Two Florida women have taken their city and local police to court after they were threatened with a loitering citation for conducting pro-life activities outside of a local abortion facility.
The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) filed the legal challenge on behalf of Judith Minahan and JoAnn O’Connell of Fort Myers this fall, and a federal hearing was held over the matter on Tuesday. The women have been reaching out to pregnant mothers for the past decade outside of the Fort Myers Women’s Health Center, one of the largest abortion facilities in the area.
“When individuals who are driving into the medical office complex stop to speak with Plaintiffs, Plaintiffs will generally hand them literature and speak with them about abortion-related topics, including information about the possible emotional and physical effects of abortion, nearby maternity homes, local and national helplines, and fetal development,” the complaint filed by ACLJ reads.
Minahan and O’Connell stand on the public sidewalk during their outreach, do not block pedestrians and seek to reach women in a non-confrontational manner.
But the women state that in October of this year, as they and two others were engaging in pro-life outreach, they were approached by a member of the Fort Myers Police Department, who handed them a copy of the city’s loitering ordinance, which he said is usually enforced against prostitutes.
“Defendant Officer Conticelli stated that he would enforce the loitering ordinance against them if they (1) stood in one spot on the public sidewalk in front of the medical office complex and abortion clinic and did not keep walking on that public sidewalk, (2) approached any vehicles entering or leaving the medical office complex and abortion clinic to hand out literature or speak with the occupants of the vehicle, or (3) blocked vehicular traffic entering or leaving the medical office complex and abortion clinic by handing out literature or talking to the people in vehicles,” the complaint reads.
In turn, Minahan and O’Connell provided the officer with a copy of a consent decree from a previous lawsuit, in which the city had reportedly agreed not to interfere with their pro-life activities. But as the women remain under the threat of citation, they discontinued much of their activities.
“Plaintiffs now—against their wishes—refrain from approaching vehicles, speaking with people in vehicles or handing them literature, and standing in one spot while on the public sidewalk in front of the medical office complex and abortion clinic, which includes refraining from standing together while praying, out of fear of arrest, citation, prosecution, and/or fine,” the ACLJ states.
Minahan and O’Connell are now seeking an injunction and are asking the court to declare the loitering ordinance unconstitutional, both on its face and as it is being applied to their free speech activities.
“I think it’s outrageous,” ACLJ Senior Counsel Edward White told Fox 4 of the threatened citation. “What my clients are doing is totally legal. It has nothing to do with any illegal conduct. They are peacefully exercising their first amendment rights by standing on a public sidewalk.”
City counsel said that the ordinance needs to be reviewed further before they form an opinion about the matter.