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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Shawn Vestal: Police watch as another Planned Parenthood ‘church’ protest flouts the law

Sept. 27, 2020 Updated Tue., Oct. 20, 2020 at 4:39 p.m.

A group of anti-abortion activists, pictured earlier this month, holds a  (COLIN MULVANY)
A group of anti-abortion activists, pictured earlier this month, holds a (COLIN MULVANY)

It has seemed, month after month, that Spokane police were determined not to take any action against the obstructionist “church” of abortion protesters who gather regularly outside Planned Parenthood.

The department has, variously, argued that the noise of the protesters – which is amplified by banks of speakers and audible inside the clinic – is just not that bad. Or when it is that bad, it’s not that sustained. Or it’s too hard to measure. Or it’s unconstitutional, according to city attorneys. Or that the protesters are actually less loud than counter-protesters or honking cars.

I heard the noise inside myself one night – at a level I would never want to hear while consulting with a health care professional – only to be told by an officer the noise was not as bad as it seemed to me. Officers have said it was no more troublesome than a lawn mower – despite the fact that clinic officials continually pointed out it was forcing them to reschedule appointments and move patients around. They said protesters always turned it down when they were asked to.

They did not seem bothered at all that the sidewalk was completely blocked, and protesters roamed across the drive-in entrances to the parking lots, leaning over to peer at, or talk to, drivers as they passed.

It has been hard to figure out why the Spokane Police Department has been so passive with regard to the “Church at Planned Parenthood” – the anti-abortion group that meets monthly at Planned Parenthood and is now led by Matt Shea, the former state representative who helped organize the Malheur bird refuge takeover, trainer of child warriors for the end times and proponent of a theocratic 51st state.

From the very start of the protests in late 2018, state law has been unambiguous – disrupting the activities of a health care facility is prohibited. There is also a city noise ordinance that the gatherings seemed to violate regularly.

The clear intent of the protests, expressed by TCAPP’s leaders, was to disrupt the activities of Planned Parenthood. The physical reality of the protests made that even more clear.

Why not simply have the protests move a little farther away – across the street, for example? Police do that all the time, putting “time, manner and place” restrictions on protests. It’s a well-established legal remedy for cases where interests collide, and we’ve seen frequent examples in Spokane.

But no. Month after month, the department assigned officers to do little more than observe, on overtime.

Then the City Council passed a law strengthening the noise ordinance and adopting language similar to the state prohibition on disrupting health care facilities.

SPD then said it couldn’t enforce the law without sending officers for decibel-meter training it couldn’t immediately afford.

The protests continued as they had.

Finally, Planned Parenthood sued. Last week, Superior Court Judge Raymond Clary issued a preliminary injunction that ordered protesters to do what the police could easily have had them do long ago – move across the street, hold their gatherings after business hours, turn it down and protest without interfering with the clinic’s operations.

The preliminary injunction was based on the likelihood of eventual success on the lawsuit’s merits. Clary thoroughly and specifically outlines the ways TCAPP has purposefully interfered with operations and disturbed the peace in the clinic.

Clary wrote that the evidence demonstrates that Planned Parenthood’s “delivery of health care and patients’ receipt of health care has been willfully disrupted from normal functioning by the time, place and manner” of the protests, adding, “The motive of Defendants and TCAPP is expressed in Facebook posts that reveal a desire to harass and shut Planned Parenthood down.”

One day after the injunction, TCAPP violated it. The leaders – new pastor Shea, old pastor Ken Peters and others – set up across the street, but earlier than the judge had ordered. They then crossed the street to pray in front of the clinic in open defiance of the injunction’s 35-foot buffer.

Officers wrote a report.

Now, it’s not clear what else they might have done in that moment.

The preliminary injunction does not allow for a criminal remedy, as Police Chief Craig Meidl pointed out in an interview.

He noted that officers reported two instances of apparent violations to the prosecutor’s office, which declined to take any action. (The question of whether our prosecutor’s office would be any more vigorous in enforcing this law is another question entirely.)

Meidl also says that his department has not avoided or refused enforcing the interference law or noise ordinance. He said there are competing interests, and that his department has tried to balance those interests.

On two occasions, body camera footage taken inside the clinic revealed noise levels that were brief and not overwhelming, he said, and it was not clear-cut that the activities of the protests were interfering with operations at the clinic by blocking access or other standards of the law.

“There is absolutely no hesitation in enforcing the law,” he said.

For Planned Parenthood, though, it felt like more of the same. The protesters break the law and the police shrug, with a new explanation that differs from the last one.

Kim Clark, the attorney who represents Planned Parenthood in the suit, agreed that the injunction did not carry a criminal penalty. But the injunction is based upon the law.

“Whether or not the police have the authority to enforce the injunction, they have the authority to enforce the law,” said Clark, a senior attorney with Legal Voice, a Seattle-based firm that works for women’s rights and LGBTQ equality. “For the most part, the injunction mirrors the law.”

She added, “To me, this looks like just another in a long line of explanations for the inaction of the police.”

The case will proceed, and so will the protests, probably. The injunction makes it clear that there is a way to balance the interests here.

It also asserts, at long last, that the clinic and its patients are due the protection of the law they have been seeking for so long.

Because, as Clary wrote, “Planned Parenthood has made numerous reports to law enforcement. Reporting has not resulted in change in the protesters’ behavior.”

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