FORT PIERCE, Fla. — A school teacher who engages in pro-life outreach outside of an abortion facility in Florida has been barred from going near the location after a worker sought to accuse him of “stalking” her.
James Thoma is a second grade teacher in Fort Pierce, and for the past fifteen years he has served as a volunteer sidewalk counselor outside of A Woman’s World Medical Center, which is across the street from the elementary school at which he works.
According to court documents, Thoma provides mothers with literature from a local pregnancy care center, which provides information on obtaining free counseling, ultrasounds and baby clothes. When he encounters employees at the facility, he will often urge them to find other work, opining that “they could put their skills to better use helping women and children elsewhere.”
One of the workers, Tamika O’Neal, took offense with Thoma, and a series of events led her to seek a restraining order to keep him away from her. According to Liberty Counsel, which is representing Thoma in court, on one occasion Thoma ended up behind O’Neal in traffic after they both left the abortion facility at approximately the same time. She then pulled to the side and let him pass, and Thoma went home.
Earlier this year, Thoma began looking for housing closer to the school since his elderly father had moved in with him. When he visited an area apartment complex in considering his options, he discovered that O’Neal lived there as she later pulled in the parking lot. O’Neal became upset after seeing Thoma, who then drove away. He no longer considered the complex as possible housing after learning that O’Neal resided there.
On another occasion, Thoma mailed out flyers to the community, which read, “Ask Tamekia O’Neal to please stop assisting the abortionist with the killing of black babies,” and included a quote from the niece of Martin Luther King, Jr. She then sought an “injunction for protection against stalking” order against Thoma, which she was granted.
The court agreed with O’Neal’s assertion that Thoma was “following” her in the single incident when he ended up behind her in traffic, and it also took issue with the flyers that had been mailed. Thoma was ordered not to go within 500 feet of the abortion facility, thus banning him from engaging in the pro-life activities he had been involved in for the past 15 years.
But attorneys for Thoma state that these incidents cannot be considered stalking, as one was coincidental and the other was an act of free speech. They also assert that stalking requires repeated harassment or malicious action.
“The trial court … based the injunction on a single ‘following’ incident which was not malicious because Thoma was required to drive the same way as O’Neal to get home, and on Thoma’s participation in the creation and distribution of a flyer containing political speech on a public issue which was entitled to the highest level of First Amendment protection,” Liberty Counsel wrote in a recent appeal to Florida’s Fourth District Court. “Neither incident could be legally counted towards the repeated incidents required for a finding of stalking.”
They state that as a result, many women may not receive the help that they need and babies may die.
“It is a sad irony when a statute designed to prevent violence against women is used to prevent a pro-life school teacher from peacefully counseling women against the violence of abortion,” said Roger Gannam, Senior Litigation Counsel at Liberty Counsel. “Every day that Mr. Thoma is prevented from being at the clinic is a violation of his constitutional rights, and women who may be desperate for help in dealing with a crisis pregnancy are denied critical information about alternatives to abortion.”