Supreme Court Declines Appeal Over Abortion Display at School
The U.S. Supreme Court today declined the appeals of an assistant principal and a sheriff's department stemming from a lawsuit that challenged their handling of a graphic abortion display near a California middle school.
The justices declined without comment to review a federal appeals court ruling that the assistant principal and sheriff's deputies violated the First Amendment rights of members of an anti-abortion group by ordering them to stop driving a truck displaying large, graphic images of aborted fetuses around Dodson Middle School in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.
The suit stems from a March 24, 2003, incident when a truck sponsored by the anti-abortion group, the Center for Bioethical Reform, targeted the middle school just as students were arriving for the day. According to the court papers, some students were upset by the graphic images of fetuses, a group of boys threatened to throw rocks at the truck, and other students talked about it in class.
School officials called the Los Angeles County sheriff's department, which dispatched several officers. Art Roberts, the assistant principal of Dodson Middle, joined the officers in telling the anti-abortion group members that they would have to leave the area adjoining the school, court papers say. They cited a California law that bars disruptions on or near school campuses.
A federal district court dismissed the suit, but in the July 2 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit court revived it. The court said that because the government officials restricted the group's speech based on the targeted listener's reaction to it, that amounted to allowing a "heckler's veto" in violation of the First Amendment.
The court held that because of uncertainty in applying the state statute to this situation, the assisant principal and the sheriff's deputies were entitled to qualified immunity from any personal liability in the case. But it ordered the district court to reconsider the anti-abortion group's request for injunctive relief.
In the appeal on behalf of the assistant principal in Roberts v. Center for Bioethical Reform (Case No. 08-431), lawyers argued that the 9th Circuit's decision "threatens to open a Pandora's Box of difficulties for public school districts ... throughout the nation" because it bars "time, place, and manner" restrictions on such graphic anti-abortion displays.
In a brief urging the justices not to hear the case, lawyers for the Center for Bioethical Reform say the group was "engaging in peaceful, silent, and non-obstructive political speech" that did not cause any material disruptions at the middle school.
The Supreme Court's refusal to hear the case is not a ruling on the merits of the appeals.