Updated

Coalition for Life loses suit over signs

By CRAIG KAPITAN

Eagle Staff Writer

Local anti-abortion protesters standing in front of Planned Parenthood don’t have the right to place signs in the right-of-way, and the Bryan Police Department isn’t wrong for investigating such violations, a federal judge has ruled.

The judge’s decision last Friday brings a tentative close to a lawsuit filed by the Coalition for Life and several individual protesters in 2002. They claimed the city violated their constitutional rights to free speech when it banned them from leaving their signs unattended.

It is legal to hold or wear a sign in a public right-of-way so long as it is not left on the ground, according to Bryan’s sign ordinance.

“ This is pretty much what we expected at this level,” Coalition for Life Director David Bereit said Tuesday. The group plans to appeal the ruling, he said.

City officials, police and local abortion rights activists said they’ve been celebrating the decision, which most learned about Tuesday.

“ I was ecstatic over it,” Mayor Jay Don Watson said, explaining that he is most thrilled that the judge’s decision will vindicate the city’s exemption to the rule for flags. “Sometimes when you feel something you have to go forward with it, like the flag issue.”

Judge Kenneth Hoyt of the U.S. District Court in Houston wrote in his decision that “the city has the police power to define and regulate commercial signs.”

“ The court is of the opinion that the Coalition for Life’s arguments are unmeritorious,” he wrote.

The Bryan City Council has refined its sign ordinance several times in the past six months to clarify any ambiguities in the law that might have existed before, the judge also wrote. Those changes add in making the Coalition’s argument moot, he said.

Among the city’s revisions was a controversial measure to ban all signs and flags from rights-of-way. It was later revised again to allow the Boy Scouts to hold their annual fund-raiser in which American flags are placed in front of businesses.

Planned Parenthood’s director of community services, Debbie McCall, commended the Bryan City Council on Tuesday for “backing their own ordinance and standing their own ground against a very antagonistic group.”

“ We firmly believe that police officers must be allowed to do their job, which is to enforce the law fairly and maintain peace in their communities,” she added in a written statement.

In the lawsuit, the Coalition provided police reports to support their argument that members were unfairly singled out by the Bryan Police Department because of their religious beliefs.

But officers cautioning protesters that they aren’t allowed to set signs on the ground does not constitute harassment, the judge wrote. And it also isn’t wrong for police to investigate complaints against protesters, he said.

“ The Coalition for Life and its members are not entitled to immunity from the law, nor are they entitled to absolute First Amendment rights,” Judge Hoyt wrote. “The claims that the members have brought to the court’s attention are isolated incidents that do not evince a pattern of police misconduct.”

Bereit said Tuesday he welcomes police involvement as the contentious abortion issue continues to be debated in front of Planned Parenthood.

“ We hope the authorities stay involved,” he said. “We just want to make sure in the future everything is handled in a fair and just way.”

Even if the city’s revised ordinance is considered fair, Bereit said, he hopes to have the lawsuit carried on to a higher court because the judge didn’t address whether protesters’ rights were violated before the city’s revisions.

“ There was damage done that needs to be addressed,” he said.

While the Coalition isn’t seeking monetary compensation, he added, such a decision would vindicate the protesters and set a precedent for other protesters in the state.

But the current decision is a vindication for the city and the police department, Bryan Police Chief Mike Strope said Tuesday.

“ I don’t think that anyone in the department here felt we did anything wrong,” he said. “I’m certainly glad a federal judge concurs.”

The lawsuit has been a distraction for the department over the past year, but officers have continued to play the part of neutral peacekeeper, he said.

“ I hope now we have an understanding of the role Bryan PD plays,” he said, explaining that the office responds to and investigates complaints regardless of a person’s stance on the abortion issue.

“We’re here for everyone,” he said. “That was the case two years ago. That remains the case.”

• Craig Kapitan’s e-mail address is ckapitan@theeagle.com.

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