On Friday in St. Louis Circuit Court, Associate Circuit Judge Michael Noble dismissed charges against pro-life activists, Brian Westbrook, executive director of Coalition for Life St. Louis, and Rita Sparrow, veteran sidewalk counselor, after testimony and arguments. The cases had been brought by the City of St. Louis, stretching ordinances beyond their intended scope in order to charge Mr. Westbrook and Ms. Sparrow for simple, peaceful demonstration outside the local Planned Parenthood.
In June 2012, St. Louis police accused Mr. Westbrook of “False Advertising” for displaying a sign that advised abortion-bound women that there were “Free Pregnancy Tests and Ultrasounds” available at the nearby Thrive ultrasound van.
The City claimed that, because Westbrook himself was not providing such free tests or ultrasounds, his sign was deceptive and misleading. Westbrook was, however, referring Planned Parenthood patrons to the ultrasound van parked just across the street from the Planned Parenthood clinic, where ultrasound and pregnancy tests were freely provided.
The charge against Mr. Westbrook was thrown out when the court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss. The judge thus acknowledged that the City was frivolously using a commercial consumer protection ordinance against a selfless, non-profit pro-lifer saving babies.
Similarly, in October 2012, police misapplied an ordinance to charge Ms. Sparrow with “littering with household goods” for using a folding chair to hold up her signs and a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary on a lawn chair next to the driveway into Planned Parenthood in St. Louis. The charge against Ms. Sparrow was that she violated the City’s “Anti-Littering Ordinance,” which forbade placement of unattended personal property on city property, such as public sidewalks, parks, etc.
After hearing the City’s police officer testimony and looking at a video that showed other objects on the parkway near the driveway in addition to Ms. Sparrow’s lawn chair, the judge threw out the case. He commented that there was no evidence that Ms. Sparrow had ever left her lawn chair unattended, and he compared the City’s charge in Ms. Sparrow’s case to the City charging those attending a concert in a city park and bringing their lawn chairs for that purpose.
As with Mr. Westbrook, the City had expanded an ordinance far beyond its intended scope to use it to stifle legitimate, First Amendment protected activity.
Representing the pro-lifers were Gerard Nieters of O’Fallon, Missouri, special counsel hired by Thomas More Society from Chicago, and Tom Brejcha, president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Society. Brejcha argued the motions to dismiss both charges, while Nieters conducted the trial proceedings held in Ms. Sparrow’s case before Judge Noble dismissed the charge after the presentation of the City’s evidence was completed.
In one part of his argument, the City attorney betrayed the truth of what prompted the City to bring these baseless charges against pro-lifers. The City attorney argued that Westbrook was “taking business away from” the targeted business, namely, Planned Parenthood. This reveals the underlying motive for the charges.
“Dismissal of these charges constitutes a big victory for all pro-lifers in St. Louis, Missouri, and elsewhere, as the Planned Parenthood facility is the only abortion provider left in our entire state,” said Gerry Nieters, attorney for defendants. “Furthermore, the judge’s dismissal of the City’s charges in both these cases is of major importance for protecting citizens’ First Amendment rights.”
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Tom Brejcha added “While we applaud this result, we remain extremely troubled that St. Louis authorities ever brought such frivolous criminal charges against these innocent, pro-life heroes. It has been our honor to defend them.”
With the dismissal of all charges, Mr. Westbrook and Ms. Sparrow look forward to continuing their peaceful counseling of women outside Planned Parenthood without fear of harassment by the City.