No charges will be filed against a group of protesters who wrote antiabortion messages in chalk outside a Newport Beach doctor’s home, authorities said Wednesday.
Police had said that the messages -- including "Abortion is murder” and “Your neighbor is a monster” -- may have been considered vandalism of public property when demonstrators rallied in the Dover Shores neighborhood near the home of Dr. Richard Agnew, a Hoag Hospital-affiliated obstetrician, on June 29 and July 1.
But when detectives sent the case to the Orange County district attorney’s office, spokeswoman Farrah Emami said, there was no request to file vandalism charges. Instead, the case focused on battery charges related to a scuffle that broke out among protesters and residents who objected to the demonstration, the Daily Pilot reported.
Prosecutors decided against filing those charges in the case due to a lack of evidence, Emami said Wednesday.
Jeff White, the founder of the Riverside group associated with the protest, Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust, called the decision a vindication of their free-speech rights. “I think it’s shortsighted on the part of the neighborhood to waste the police department’s time even trying to enforce anti-1st Amendment-type ordinances,” White said.
He added that his group was prepared to fight officials in court had they pursued a vandalism case.
“Do they really want to get into a $50,000 to $100,000 lawsuit?” he said. “Because we would sue over the sidewalk chalk.”
White’s group would have a tough case to make, according to Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine School of Law, who said sidewalk chalk likely doesn’t fall under free-speech protections.
“There’s no right to deface public property,” Chemerinsky said. “There’s no right to spray-paint a public building or viaduct. There’s no right to spray-paint a sidewalk.”
Though chalk is less permanent than spray paint, it still causes damage by requiring someone to clean it up, he said.
“Even though a public sidewalk is a public forum, there can be time, place and manner restrictions on speech,” Chemerinsky said. “I think what the court would say is there are many ways of expressing yourself that don’t deface public property.”
Newport Beach has already tried once to push protesters away from homes.
After Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust first demonstrated at Agnew’s home in 2013, the City Council passed an ordinance barring picketing within 300 feet of private residences.
That decision, however, did not keep protesters from returning to the neighborhood and simply staying far enough away from the home to abide by the law.
The city could enact a more stringent ordinance, according to Chemerinsky. The U.S. Supreme Court has said laws can ban protesters from targeting specific homes, he said.
“That’s different than picketing a clinic or a healthcare facility,” he said.
Meanwhile, members of Agnew’s family said they were concerned that if something wasn’t done, the protests could escalate.
“These people are threatening,” said Agnew’s wife, Katherine. “I’m afraid somebody is going to get killed if we don’t address the matter.”
Dobruck is a staff writer for Times Community News.