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Shawn Vestal: Ordinance preventing clinic disruptions doesn’t harm the First Amendment

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)

Good news, everybody. The First Amendment rights of the Church of Planned Parenthood remain intact.

Freedom to say whatever they wish – check.

Freedom to believe whatever they wish to believe – check.

Freedom to gather with those who wish to believe the same things they do and say whatever they wish to say to each other – double check.

The only thing that’s changed in the wake of a new city ordinance barring disruptions at health facilities is the ability of TCAPP to disrupt Planned Parenthood. Which the group insists, unpersuasively, is not its aim.

So the new city law – which merely replicates a state law that the city police have twisted themselves into knots not enforcing – should be no problem for the anti-abortion protesters who gather regularly outside Planned Parenthood, aggressively amplifying sermons and songs so they are audible inside the clinic.

But you wouldn’t know it to hear the TCAPP gang talk. No, you’d think they’d been “steamrolled” by “the left.” You’d think they’d suffered tyrannical persecution because of their religion. You’d think their free speech rights had been taken away completely. You’d think this was the end of America as we know it.

“It is not only our right, but our duty to disobey tyrannical laws,” said Afshin Yaghtin, a TCAPP member and pastor who was arrested – then cleared – following the last culture wars blowup over drag queen story hour at the library.

Will TCAPP disobey this “tyrannical” new law? If they do, will enforcement come from the crew of police officers who earn monthly overtime checks to sit on the sidelines at every protest and eye-roll about the clinic’s complaints, while making jokes – as one officer captured on camera did – about the cleanliness of the “girls” protesting? Might Planned Parenthood sue if they don’t enforce it? Might the defenders of TCAPP sue over the ordinance itself, as they threatened to with the legal help of a former Trump lawyer?

Monday night’s City Council meeting was the longest, most intense manifestation of the culture wars in council chambers since the night in 2012 when the forces of righteousness came out to denounce same-sex marriage.

Councilwoman Lori Kinnear brought forth the new ordinance, which mostly replicates a state law that prohibits interference with a clinic, including noise that disturbs the peace inside. Other cities have similar laws, and there is ample court precedent granting governments the authority to regulate the “time, place and manner” of assemblies, so long as there is a legitimate public interest in the limitation, the limits are content-neutral and there is ample opportunity for protesters to express themselves otherwise.

The proposal laid bare the intensity of passions on both sides of this divide, and particularly the extremism and volatility of some of the most committed anti-abortion protesters involved. TCAPP draws heavily from the ammo-and-apocalypse cadre of Matt Shea, who speaks at the gatherings.

Pastor Ken Peters, who founded the group, has boasted about how many attendees carry guns. Violent metaphor and warrior rhetoric is run of the mill. Some supporters of Planned Parenthood have also engaged in hot talk, apparently, and the result of such language on both sides has been teams of police officers at recent council meetings.

On Monday, one after another, TCAPP members and defenders took their three minutes of public forum time to protest the proposal, declare themselves free-speech martyrs, shout about “killing babies,” preach, accuse the council of being “morally bankrupt” and “making a statement against God himself,” and compare ending a pregnancy to killing a 2-year-old (in one pastor’s formulation) and killing a 5-year-old (in another’s).

One man sang a hymn for 180 long seconds, leading to a strange instance of rules enforcement from Council President Breean Beggs: “Excuse me?” Beggs told the audience, mid-hymn. “The speaker can sing, but no one else.”

Many of those who testified don’t live anywhere near Spokane. A pastor came from Tennessee to tell council members “The world is watching!” and play a recording of a crying baby. A Moses Lake pastor came and told the council they were working against God.

Also in attendance was Joey Gibson, the Patriot Prayer founder who hosts rallies in Portland that draw white nationalists and provoke conflict with antifa groups, and who faces federal riot charges and a $1 million lawsuit from a violent confrontation outside a Portland cidery. Gibson, the dude-broiest of religious dude-bros, shouted for three minutes.

Two TCAPP proponents made the point of saying their Second Amendment rights protect their First Amendment rights.

Peaceful, see.

Beyond that, though, speaker after speaker engaged in a particularly bad-faith act: insisting that TCAPP is not trying to disrupt Planned Parenthood. It’s just a humble little church service, see? Just a wee little gathering for prayer and worship.

This is baldly, obviously false. If it were true, TCAPP could very, very easily put this whole thing to rest by just … moving their simple worship service a tiny bit farther away. Across the street, say, where the counterprotesters used to be, or up the sidewalk. Or by changing the time of their “service” until after hours. Or by turning down, or even off, the banks of speakers they haul to and from the protests, speakers which make the events audible even in homes more than a block away.

The Constitution is safe. TCAPP can speak freely without blaring into exam rooms. They can exercise their religion unfettered, without fettering sidewalk access or lurking in the driveways and peering into the cars that enter, without creating a scene that deters patients from appointments. They can assemble without weaponizing sound. They can enjoy their rights, as we all do, while respecting the rights of others.

They haven’t done that. What they’ve done is doubled down, donned the cloak of martyrdom, and borne false witness about their real intentions.

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