After more than five years of federal litigation, members of the Rockford Pro-Life Initiative have settled their federal lawsuit against the City of Rockford over the city’s alleged harassment of pro-life individuals and other alleged federal civil rights violations.
The agreement, reached between attorneys from the Thomas More Society and the city, will result in positive reforms and revisions of city ordinances, payment of attorney’s fees, and compensation for losses suffered by the removal of pro-life advertising by members of the Pro-Life Initiative.
“We owe a solemn duty to our country as well as our clients to assure that state or municipal laws in direct conflict with the U.S. Constitution are revised to protect the fundamental rights of citizens to engage in a robust exercise of their First Amendment rights,” explained Tom Brejcha, President and Chief Counsel of the Thomas More Society. “After over five years of litigation, we are gratified that the city of Rockford has agreed to respect these rights as a key part of our final settlement of this federal lawsuit. This settlement agreement now guarantees that Winnebago County’s pro-life advocates will be able to speak out, loud and clear, in support of the truly American principle, as proclaimed in our Declaration of Independence, that the life of every human being is sacred, and endowed with an inalienable worth and dignity, from beginning to end – that is, as biological science and DNA now prove, from conception until natural death, no matter whether ‘wanted’ or ‘unwanted,’ flawed or flawless, humble or exalted.”
Brejcha and co-counsel Peter Breen of the Thomas More Society, along with attorney Jason R. Craddock, reached a resolution of the federal lawsuit in a long series of meetings with Rockford officials, going back over several years, even after the city’s lone abortion provider, Wayne Webster, was forced to shutter his highly controversial abortion operation. Webster achieved national notoriety for conducting his abortion business in an old abandoned school building, featuring hanging rubber chickens, nun dolls pierced by sewing needles, and other exotic and gruesome displays in his windows. Webster himself was once photographed while dressed in a red devil costume, yelling insults at pro-life demonstrators and even threatening to spray them with raw sewage from a truck parked on his property. Two years ago, an Elgin, Illinois pregnancy resource center began to send a bus with an ultrasound machine, staffed by nurses, to park nearby and offer free ultrasounds to abortion-bound moms. Webster tried to retaliate by parking old vehicles from his car collection to block all available parking spaces and getting the city to ticket the bus for parking violations. But all those contentious times now seem part of a bygone era, as early last year Webster’s business was shut down by state authorities after failing repeated health & safety inspections.
According to the settlement agreement, the city of Rockford, Illinois, has agreed that its governing ordinances should not violate the fundamental rights of Rockford citizens to freedom of expression and assembly. The city will be revising a specific number of its ordinances and laws and implementing a training program for the Rockford Police Department in order to properly educate law enforcement about citizens’ First Amendment rights. The settlement agreement’s stated goals include the prevention of any wrongful arrest of citizens, including pro-life advocates, for participation in constitutionally-protected activities.
“In the past the city of Rockford had refused on numerous occasions to protect pro-life demonstrators against threats as well as actual assaults by lawless persons hostile to the pro-life view,” said Kevin Rilott, one of the primary plaintiffs in the federal suit. “We brought our lawsuit against the Rockford to compel our own city’s law enforcement officials to protect pro-lifers as well as other citizens from against such public and private harms.”
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The settlement dictates a comprehensive policy reform on Rockford’s part, mandates law enforcement education and training regarding citizen rights, requires payment by the city for the plaintiffs’ legal fees as well as modest compensation for damages incurred when a pro-life bus bench advertisement was defaced and obliterated and future advertisements barred. Also, a spurious city complaint against Rilott for alleged “jaywalking” outside Webster’s abortion now-shuttered abortion premises was dismissed.
A copy of the settlement is available here.