Seattle Suburb Backs Down From Ban on Abortion Clinic Protesters

Everett, Wash., officials end crackdown on pro-life demonstrations

Pro-life and pro-choice activists in 2018 / Getty Images
May 26, 2021

A Seattle suburb backed down from its ban on pro-life demonstrations outside a Planned Parenthood clinic following legal threats from First Amendment activists.

Everett, a city of over 100,000 people 25 miles north of Seattle, cracked down on pro-life demonstrations even as city officials embraced mass gatherings for left-wing protesters associated with the Black Lives Matter and Antifa movements. The city issued a ban on sidewalk protests in front of a Planned Parenthood clinic after a confrontation between pro-abortion and pro-life protesters. Lawyers for the pro-life groups alleged that the city government gave preferential treatment to the pro-abortion demonstrators by forcing pro-life advocates to move further away from the abortion clinic.

The reversal came after the Thomas More Society, a religious liberty law firm, threatened legal action on First Amendment grounds, arguing that the city was targeting the free speech rights of pro-lifers.

"It was a clear violation of the First Amendment rights of the pro-life sidewalk counselors," said Thomas More Society attorney Matt Heffron. "In the end, the city did the right thing. It just takes some legal pressure at times."

Everett's deputy city attorney disagrees with Heffron. "The City implemented reasonable crowd-control measures to protect public safety after protestors from pro-life and pro-choice groups had a physical altercation," he told the Free Beacon. "After no additional events arose for over a month, the City elected to remove restrictions."

The city's crackdown on pro-life protesters comes in the wake of a contentious year of political demonstrations in Washington state. Seattle became the focus of attention during the summer of 2020 over its "CHOP" zone, a neighborhood that left-wing protesters declared an "autonomous zone." Police officers cleared the zone after less than a month of existence due to violence in the neighborhood. Over the course of nine days, there were four shootings, two deaths, and reports of widespread arson and sexual assaults. Locals who lived near the zone said they experienced vandalism and property damage and needed to ask for others to escort them home at night because of safety concerns.

By walking back the ordinance, the city of Everett avoided a court battle. In 2014, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down on free speech grounds a Massachusetts law that created a 35-foot exclusionary zone outside of an abortion clinic. In 2020, the Court declined to hear two similar cases concerning protest zones outside abortion clinics in Pennsylvania and Chicago, but those ordinances had been more narrowly tailored to align with the Court's rulings on the issue.

Police officers for the city had disproportionately enforced the ordinance, according to Thomas More Society attorneys. The police had moved pro-life demonstrators far down the street while allowing a pro-abortion crowd to gather directly across from the clinic.

"Banishing the pro-life side to the far corners of the street while allowing the pro-choice protestors to remain near the clinic is strong evidence of viewpoint discrimination that renders this buffer zone all the more obviously unconstitutional," Thomas More attorneys wrote to the city on May 11.