WASHINGTON -- An anti-abortion protester who won the right to display pictures of aborted fetuses at a busy intersection can collect lawyer’s fees from local officials, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The justices said that because a South Carolina anti-abortion activist had a free speech right to display photos of aborted fetuses even though they shocked some motorists, he could also claim his legal fees under civil rights law for vindicating his rights in court.
Although the ruling concerned only legal fees, it will likely strengthen the hand of abortion protesters who clash with police or city officials. If they go to court and prevail on any claim, they can force officials to pay their legal costs.
The unsigned decision, based on legal briefs, had no recorded dissent.
In the Civil Rights Attorneys Fees Act of 1976, Congress said civil rights lawyers who sued and won cases involving constitutional rights were entitled to claim “reasonable attorney’s fees.” The law was intended to bolster civil rights advocates who filed suits in that era over issues such as school desegregation. The high court’s decision makes clear the law also applies to anti-abortion protesters who sue and win a constitutional claim.
“What we argued is for the benefit of all protesters of all stripes all across the country,” said Steven Fitschen, president of the National Legal Foundation in Virginia Beach, Va., which calls itself a “Christian public interest law firm.”
In November 2005, Steven Lefemine, who leads a group called Columbia Christians for Life, led 20 protesters who stood at the busiest intersection in Greenwood County, S.C., and held up color photos of mutilated fetuses. He said the goal was to “shock the consciences of those who see the signs to the horrors of abortion.”
Several motorists called police to complain. They included a frantic mother who said her 5-year-old son was screaming and crying in the back seat after seeing the photos.
According to court papers, an officer arrived and told Lefemine that he was causing a traffic disturbance and that he must “remove the signs.” He did as instructed, but two years later, he sued Sheriff Dan Wideman and other officials. He sought a ruling that would allow him to display the photos in future protests. He also sought damages from the officers for violating his constitutional rights.
A federal judge in Greenville, S.C. agreed that the First Amendment guaranteed Lefemine’s right to the “display of graphic signs,” so long as he did not cause a traffic disturbance. The police, for example, could see to it that protesters did not move into the street or otherwise obstruct the free flow of traffic.
But the judge also shielded the sheriff and city officials from paying damages in the case because the law in this area has not been entirely clear. Because it was a split decision, the judge said Lefemine was not entitled to attorneys fees as the prevailing party.
The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the judge’s decision in March.
The Supreme Court has adopted a broad approach to the Civil Rights Act and said plaintiffs can obtain civil rights fees if they prevail on any significant issue. Without hearing arguments in Lefemine v. Wideman, the justices reversed the two lower courts on Monday and said the anti-abortion protester was a “prevailing party” because he won the right to display his graphic photos on the sidewalk.
Lefemine went to court because he “desired to conduct demonstrations in Greenwood County with signs that the police officers told him he could not carry. . After the (judge’s) ruling, the police could not prevent him from demonstrating in that manner,” the justices said in a four-page opinion.
The court sent the case back to the judge to decide on reasonable attorneys’ fees.