David Daleiden, the antiabortion activist behind the recent sting-video campaign intended to take down Planned Parenthood, arrived at a construction site in Northeast DC on Thursday morning dressed in black, his hair gelled into a modest faux-hawk, a layer of makeup smoothed over his face. He thanked the few dozen people standing around him for coming out in the bitter weather to protest the Planned Parenthood “mega clinic” that stood, incomplete, behind him. “I think that the building itself…is a little symbolic,” Daleiden mused. “This construction right now, as we stand here, is stopped in its tracks. And that’s the situation with Planned Parenthood and the rest of the abortion industry right now: They’re stopped in their tracks.”
In fact, construction was underway; workers were moving loads of rubble and the clang of metal and the beep of machinery kept interrupting. What antiabortion protesters had managed to shut down was the school next door—a charter school called Two Rivers, which has been unwittingly drawn into the national debate over abortion. Over the past several months activists opposed to the clinic’s construction have been “purposely and aggressively menacing” school children as young as 3 years old with graphic images and language, causing “severe emotional stress,” according to a lawsuit filed in DC Superior Court by the school in December. Teachers have had to keep students inside at recess, and the school implemented a telephone system to alert parents on days when protesters are present. On Thursday, with a larger crowd and a number of prominent antiabortion figures expected on account of the annual March for Life, administrators decided to cancel school altogether.
It was hard to blame them: Protesters were so close to the school that they trampled on a garden, oblivious to a hand-painted sign that reminded students to “keep your feet on the sidewalk,” and to pick up any trash left among the plants. Bill Harper, the parent of a 5-year-old and a 7-year-old student at Two Rivers, stepped over a placard that had been abandoned in the garden as he tried to move people out of the area. “You’re terrorizing our children!” he shouted at the crowd, which largely ignored him.
The school closure cost Harper $80 in extra childcare fees, but he was most angry about how the recurring demonstrations have disrupted the day-to-day educational experience for the students. “The whole school is focused on preventing the children from being terrorized. They’ve had to redesign the community,” he said, gesturing to black cloth draped across a fence to hide a playground. He told me that teachers sometimes have to take students on a long detour to reach the gymnasium across the street without encountering protesters. To Harper, they aren’t just a nuisance but a safety concern: One of the defendants named in the lawsuit, Robert Weiler Jr., was previously convicted of plotting to bomb an abortion clinic and shoot doctors in nearby Greenbelt, Maryland.
The lawsuit describes the protests as a form of coercion, intended to draft parents and administrators into a campaign to block the clinic from opening next door. The antiabortion activists “have promised they will ‘be back every week’ if the students and parents do not take action against the Planned Parenthood health center,” the complaint alleges. Protesters have shouted at children to “Tell your parents they kill kids next door.” In November, an activist named Jonathan Darnel sent an e-mail to school administrators that read, “I am not threatening you. Nevertheless, if you are failing to challenge Planned Parenthood, I feel a moral obligation to alert the community (including the parents of your students) myself…. I’m sure you don’t want to see me, my antiabortion friends and our graphic images any more than we want to be in your neighborhood.”
The lawsuit sets up a test of the limits of free speech. Two Rivers has asked the court for an injunction to prevent Darnel and several other people from obstructing school facilities and public space used by the school, from “directly engaging” students, and from shouting or using large posters with graphic images and violent rhetoric near the school. The closest precedent is probably St John’s Church of the Wilderness v. Scott, in which a church in Colorado sued antiabortion protesters for interrupting an Easter procession and subjecting children to disturbing images. Colorado courts granted the church an injunction, and in 2013 the Supreme Court declined to consider an appeal. The Supreme Court has ruled in favor of conservative activists in two other recent, prominent First Amendment cases—in one upholding the Westboro Baptist Church’s right to picket military funerals, and in the other striking down Massachusetts’s clinic “buffer zone” law—but the distinction the lower courts made in the Colorado case was that the adverse impact on children justified some imposition on speech.
Defendant Larry Cirignano was at the protest on Thursday, wearing a banana-yellow tie stamped with the words “choose life.” I asked him if he was at all concerned for students who were disturbed by the images and messages he and other demonstrators present to them. “I’m worried more about the kids who are in the pictures,” he responded. “It’s sad that the school and parents didn’t think they should get involved.” Gesturing at the group waiting to hear Daleiden speak, he said, “Most of these people aren’t from around here.” Cirignano said he’s being represented by Mat Staver of Liberty Council, who also represents Kentucky County Clerk Kim Davis.
Antiabortion protesters have also targeted the construction company building the Planned Parenthood facility, and on Thursday they encouraged workers to walk off the job. “I want my job,” said one employee, who was leaning against a truck just down the block from the protest, when I asked if he was considering it. He wasn’t fazed by the demonstrations. “They don’t bother us,” he said. “They bother the kids.”