Law & the Courts

Pennsylvania State Representative Harasses a Peaceful Pro-Life Activist

Signs at the 2019 March for Life in Washington, D.C. (Katie Yoder/National Review)
He cannot comprehend the incoherence of championing abortion rights while intimidating a woman for exercising her right to free speech.

In Pennsylvania, an elected official has taken it upon himself to silence his own constituents in the name of the Constitution.

State representative Brian Sims, elected in 2012 to represent part of Philadelphia, evidently believes that his job requires him to avoid the state house and instead police the space in front of abortion clinics, protecting some of his citizens from pious pro-lifers.

This weekend, Sims filmed a livestream video as he harassed an older woman praying on the sidewalk in front of a Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania location. “She is an old white lady, who is going to try to avoid showing you her face,” Sims says from behind the camera, angling it to capture the woman on tape.

He proceeds to harangue her for several minutes, calling her “disgusting” and “racist,” and repeating “shame on you,” as she studiously ignores him. “Have you fed any children today, or have you just stood out in front of a Planned Parenthood shaming people for something that they have a constitutional right to do?” Sims asks, describing her protest as “an attack on the Constitution.”

The incoherence of claiming to champion the unenumerated constitutional right to abortion while intimidating a woman for exercising her free-speech rights evidently has escaped Sims.

“Bring it, Bible Bullies! You are bigots, sexists, and misogynists and I see right through your fake morals and your broken values. #BeReal,” Sims tweeted after pro-life group Live Action criticized his video Sunday afternoon.

Sims appears as unable to discern irony as he is to comprehend the First Amendment. Who is the bully: the woman standing silently on the sidewalk, or the politician shouting at her and chasing her away? And who is the misogynist: the pro-life woman praying the rosary, or the man calling her a disgusting racist?

For this feminist hero, chasing an elderly lady down the sidewalk isn’t resistance enough. “If you know who this woman is, if you can give me her address,” Sims says on film. “We’ll protest out in front of her home.”

Later, he asks those watching to follow his example and find occasions to shout down abortion-clinic protestors themselves. “Please call the cops,” he implores his viewers. “Tell them Representative Brian Sims is standing in his district telling somebody that using the rights that they’re using to protest women coming into Planned Parenthood is disgusting, and it’s wrong, and it’s shameful.”

For all his histrionics, Sims does acknowledge that the woman’s protest is legally protected. “You’re allowed to be out here,” he permits. “That doesn’t mean you have a moral right to be out here.”

One is reminded of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.), who insisted a few months ago — after being confronted with her own inaccuracies — that many people are “more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.”

Unfortunately for Sims — and fortunately for the rest of us — constitutional rights are determined by the text of the Constitution and not by his highly tenuous and individualistic interpretation of morality. And his victim was protected not only by the clear meaning of the First Amendment, but also by a recent Supreme Court decision explicitly affirming the right to protest outside abortion clinics.

In McCullen v. Coakley (2014), the Court decided unanimously that a Massachusetts law enforcing 35-foot “buffer zones” to keep protestors away from abortion clinics violated the First Amendment. Justice Antonin Scalia’s concurrence in that case, joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas, is especially illuminating.

“The obvious purpose of the challenged portion of the Massachusetts Reproductive Health Care Facilities Act is to ‘protect’ prospective clients of abortion clinics from having to hear abortion-opposing speech on public streets and sidewalks,” he wrote of the Massachusetts law. Citing his own dissent in Hill v. Colorado, Scalia noted, “The public spaces outside of [abortion-providing] facilities . . . ha[ve] become, by necessity and by virtue of this Court’s decisions, a forum of last resort for those who oppose abortion.”

Because of Roe v. Wade and subsequent jurisprudence, opponents of abortion have no recourse to the ballot box. They have little ability to influence whether their tax dollars underwrite the procedure to which they are so strongly opposed. The effort to restrict their right even to protest this regime, then, is particularly sinister.

It is an attempt to remove a citizen’s very last means of dissenting in a normal constitutional order.

This is the effort in which Brian Sims is engaged, an elected state representative taking to the streets to intimidate citizens who would exercise their free-speech rights in order to question his own flawed moral reasoning and the cavalier dismissal of unborn human life.

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