On the eve of a trial to determine whether a pro-life protester should be convicted, jailed 60 days and fined $750 for violating an Oklahoma ordinance that makes it a crime to play or create “loud and unusual sounds,” prosecutors dismissed their case against activist Toby Harmon.
The Rutherford Institute came to Harmon’s defense after he was charged with disturbing the peace in connection with a pro-life demonstration outside a Norman abortion clinic last March. The dismissal came after Rutherford Institute attorneys filed a brief arguing that the local ordinance is unconstitutionally vague and does not provide fair warning of prohibited conduct or explicit standards for enforcement.
Affiliate attorney Andrea Worden of the Worden Law Firm in Norman assisted The Rutherford Institute in its defense of Harmon’s First Amendment rights.
“Free speech is not for those who are easily offended, readily intimidated or who need everything wrapped in a neat and tidy bow. Free speech is often messy, foul-mouthed, obscene, intolerant, undignified, insensitive, cantankerous, bawdy and volatile. While free speech can also be tender, tolerant, soft-spoken, sensitive and sweet, it is free speech’s hot-blooded alter ego—the wretched, brutal, beastly Mr. Hyde to its restrained, dignified and civil Dr. Jekyll–that tests the limits of our so-called egalitarian commitment to its broad-minded principles,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead (photo), president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People.
He added: “Americans would do well to remember that free societies cherish free speech, relish open debates and controversy and, in turn, produce a robust citizenry who will stand against authoritarian government. Indeed, oppressive regimes of the past have understood the value of closed-mouthed, closed-minded citizens and the power inherent in controlling speech and, thus, controlling how a people view their society and government.”
At least two to three times a week over the course of several months, activist Toby Harmon situated himself near the Abortion Surgery Center in the City of Norman, Okla., to preach the Christian gospel to the public and urge women entering the Center not to terminate their pregnancy. Harmon, a member of the Abolitionist Society of Norman, routinely used a small amplification device without incident in order to be heard without having to shout or scream.
On March 4, 2016, Harmon was assembled near the Center along with 50 other protesters, some of whom were gathering signatures relating to state legislation, when police officers cited him for disturbing the peace. Although the City of Norman has an ordinance that regulates noise by setting specific decibel limits for sound, the officers did not measure the decibel level of Harmon’s protest activities and did not charge him for exceeding those levels.
City law defines the offense of “Disturbing the peace” as “playing or creating loud or unusual sounds[.]” In defending Harmon, Institute attorneys argued that the ordinance violates the First Amendment by granting police “unbridled discretion” to enforce the law against unpopular persons or speech.