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Greenwood Gets Qualified Immunity in Free Speech Rights Blunder

By Robyn Hagan Cain on March 06, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that Columbia Christians for Life had a First Amendment right to display graphic photographs of aborted fetuses as part of a 2005 protest, but the ruling wasn't a total win for the pro-life group. The appellate court also affirmed a district court ruling that city officials who told protesters to ditch the signs were protected by qualified immunity.

In November 2005, Greenwood County Sheriff's Department employees asked Steven Lefemine and members of Columbia Christians for Life, a South Carolina anti-abortion organization, to remove large, graphic signs depicting aborted fetuses that they were using as part of a roadside demonstration following complaints from passersby. When Lefemine argued that he had a First Amendment right to display the signs, a Department employee responded that Lefemine didn't "have a right to be offensive to other people in that manner."

Lefemine subsequently brought a civil rights action against the defendants in their individual and official capacities, alleging violations of his and Columbia Christians for Life members’ free speech rights.

The district court entered summary judgment for the plaintiffs, concluding that the defendants had violated the plaintiffs’ rights to free speech, peaceable assembly, and free exercise of religion. Nonetheless, the district court held that the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity from suit in their individual capacities because the specific rights at issue were not clearly established at the time of the violations.

This week, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that decision.

The plaintiffs argued on appeal that the district court erred in granting defendants qualified immunity. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the district court did not abuse its discretion. At the time of the demonstration, it was not clearly established that law enforcement officers could not proscribe the display of large, graphic photographs in a traditional public forum, therefore the officers were entitled to qualified immunity.

If you advise law enforcement officers on internal policies, remind officers that complaints from the public do not justify police infringement on protesters’ free speech rights.

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