JACKSON, Miss. — Officials in Jackson, Mississippi have settled a lawsuit filed by a number of Christians who were reportedly harassed while conducting pro-life ministry outside of the last remaining abortion facility in the state.
“We are pleased that the City has finally agreed to follow well-established legal precedent in this area of First Amendment rights,” Allison Aranda, senior staff counsel with the Life Legal Defense Foundation, said in a statement on Wednesday. “Our clients have been repeatedly harassed and unlawfully arrested for years by the Jackson Police Department and it was time for the City to own up to its illegality.”
As previously reported, the Foundation filed suit in 2014 against the Jackson Police Department on behalf of the organization Pro-Life Mississippi and eight Christians over what was described as a “blatant and ongoing violation of free speech rights of pro-life advocates.”
The civil rights action challenged “specific police misconduct as well as policies, customs and practices of the City of Jackson, whereby it continually infringed, and continues to infringe, upon the free speech rights of citizens by unlawfully arresting, citing and threatening to arrest such citizens for conduct that is protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, as well as the Constitution of the State of Mississippi.”
The case centered on threats and arrests at Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the last remaining abortion facility in Mississippi. As previously reported, Cal Zastrow, one of the Christians named in the suit, told Christian News Network in 2013 that he believed the Jackson Police Department had been trying every avenue possible to force Christians who conduct outreach at the facility to leave.
“[B]asically, the police have gone overly aggressive with arresting people in trying to intimidate us to get off the streets,” he said.
Zastrow was arrested twice in 2013 for allowing his pro-life sign to touch the ground and was charged with obstructing a public sidewalk. However, he has maintained that there is no law prohibiting people from allowing hand-held signs from being on the ground.
Ester Mann, a pro-life grandmother, was likewise arrested that same year for letting her sign rest on the public sidewalk, as well as John Breeken, who was taken into custody for the same alleged offense. Mann and Ron Nederhoed were again arrested later in 2013 for sitting in a lawn chair on the sidewalk while holding pro-life signs.
In 2014, Doug Lane was detained by Jackson police after being accused of preaching too loudly, and Roy McMillan was ordered to remain in his vehicle when he was found to be distributing pro-life literature on the public sidewalk.
According to the Life Legal Defense Foundation, the city of Jackson has now agreed to allow those who conduct outreach outside of the abortion facility to rest their signs and chairs on the sidewalk as long as they do not block the ingress and egress of pedestrian traffic.
“The City has agreed that the paved sidewalk and the grassy area adjacent to the clinic are public right of way and are open to free speech activity,” the Foundation outlined in a statement announcing the settlement. “Among other specific directives, the City will allow the Plaintiffs to rest their signs on the public sidewalk and sit in chairs while exercising their free speech rights, so long as they leave room for passersby.”
All criminal charges against the Plaintiffs will subsequently be dismissed, and all fines or fees will be returned.