Published On: Mon, Mar 7th, 2016

South Carolina: Charleston police says ‘panhandling’ ordinance will not hinder pro-life rallies

The Thomas More Society has received confirmation from city attorneys in Charleston, South Carolina, that the city’s “panhandling” ordinance will no longer be used to infringe on pro-lifers’ rights to distribute literature outside an abortion facility, the Charleston Women’s Medical Center (the “Medical Center”). Last week, the Society sent a letter challenging the Charleston Police Department’s application of the panhandling ordinance to pro-lifers as unconstitutional censorship of free speech.

In August 2015, Charleston passed a new ordinance to prohibit “the passing of items to or from the occupant of a motor vehicle on a roadway” (the panhandling “Ordinance”), with the purpose of promoting safety and free flow of traffic—and a publically stated goal of minimizing panhandling.  In February, however, police told pro-lifers standing in the public right-of-way outside the Medical Center that the driveway counted as a “roadway” and they could not pass life-affirming literature to drivers entering or exiting the facility.

In response, the Thomas More Society sent a letter on behalf of the Charleston GoodFriday Prayer Vigil, 40 Days for Life Charleston, and Sidewalk Advocates for Life Charleston, stating that the interpretation of the pro-lifers’ placement as in a “lane of traffic” of the road “is unconstitutional because it censors the core First Amendment rights of our clients, who have a clear constitutional right to stand on the public right-of-way in order to appeal to persons entering or exiting the parking lot of the Medical Center, a right which includes passing handbills and leaflets.”

Participants in the "March for life" walk along Concord Avenue in Knoxville, Tennessee,  photo Michael Stansberry via wikimedia commons

Participants in the “March for life” walk along Concord Avenue in Knoxville, Tennessee, photo Michael Stansberry via wikimedia commons

“The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly held that passing out literature is entitled to the highest constitutional protection,” said Jocelyn Floyd, Associate Counsel with the Thomas More Society. “Pro-lifers standing on the public right-of-way, off the street itself, offering resources to affirm and promote life, pose no danger to traffic flow or safety and therefore their free speech should not even be considered to be under the reach of the Ordinance at all. We are grateful to have reached a swift resolution with the City of Charleston to protect the rights of our clients to continue the free expression unhindered.”

The letter references several Supreme Court cases, including McCullen v. Coakley, the case in which the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck down Massachusetts’s 35-foot bubble zone outside abortion facilities. “McCullen itself noted that ‘handing out leaflets in the advocacy of a politically controversial viewpoint is the essence of First Amendment expression; no form of speech is entitled to greater constitutional protection.’”

After receiving Thomas More Society’s letter, Susan Herdina, Assistant Corporation Counsel for the City of Charleston Legal Department, responded, in part:

“We do not intend to enforce [the Ordinance] against your clients for standing beside the entrances to the Medical Center parking lot in the public right of way…” (Full response from Ms. Herdina available upon request).

Thomas More Society is grateful to have obtained a swift resolution for pro-lifers in Charleston, South Carolina, and remains dedicated to defending the First Amendment rights of pro-lifers around the country.

Thomas More Society’s original letter to Charleston Police Department is available upon request.

pro-life poster

pro-life poster

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  1. Charleston officials back down after trying to silence pro-life free speech says:

    […] Thomas More Society is announcing victory in another pro-life free speech case, this time revolving around a panhandling ordinance in […]

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