Pro-life advocates settle lawsuit over Md. police interference

By Kevin J. Jones

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A Maryland state trooper handcuffs Joan Walsh, 18, during the Defend Life event in Bel Air, Md.

The Maryland Board of Public Works has voted to settle a lawsuit from pro-life advocates who said they were censored and arrested for peacefully sharing their message on public property in 2008.

The case concerns protesters with the “Face the Truth” Pro-Life Tour organized by the Baltimore-based Catholic pro-life group Defend Life.

On Aug. 1, 2008 the demonstrators stood at public roads and intersections where they showed signs and tried to distribute literature. Police officers told them to move because of a lack of a permit, after which they moved to the town of Bel Air.

That evening at least a dozen police officers arrived at that demonstration and arrested 18 of the protesters, many of whom were held overnight.

Police said motorists complained about the protesters’ graphic posters.

Several teenage girls in the group were partially strip-searched by county detention officers. The charges against them were dropped.

“Pro-life advocates shouldn’t be silenced and arrested for peacefully speaking up for those who cannot speak for themselves,” said Kevin Theriot, Senior Counsel of the Alliance Defense Fund, which negotiated the settlement.

“The state is doing the right thing in agreeing to respect their constitutionally protected rights and to make sure officers fully understand these important freedoms. Pro-life speech cannot be censored through unwarranted arrests and illegal orders to disperse.”

Under the settlement, Maryland State Police will pay $385,000 to nine protesters, the Associated Press reports.

The settlement means that Maryland State Police cannot issue countywide dispersal orders against peaceful pro-life speakers. They cannot illegally arrest pro-life speakers who are exercising their free speech and assembly rights. They must provide acceptable reasons for asking any speakers to move and must provide speakers with the opportunity to move before threatening arrest.

They also cannot censor constitutionally protected messages and images and signs and must undergo training on constitutional rights, the Alliance Defense Fund reported.

“While we applaud the settlement, we remain appalled by the illegal behavior of the Maryland State Police,” Thomas Brejcha, president and chief counsel of the Chicago-based Thomas More Society, said March 8.

The society said its attorneys uncovered evidence of bad faith among the police officers, including 911 tapes and police recordings showing that they made the arrest because they objected to the content of protest signs.

The settlement also requires Maryland to pay the pro-life advocates’ attorneys’ fees.

Hartford County settled its part of the lawsuit in March 2011. It agreed to a policy change to ensure that peaceful protesters will be protected from strip searches at the county detention center.

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