A Rockville-based nonprofit that posts the names, photos and contact information of anti-abortion protesters online is facing a class-action lawsuit by people it has deemed “Bullies” on its website.
The federal lawsuit, filed Friday by 132 people, seeks more than $40 million in damages from Voice of Choice Inc. for invasion of privacy and defamation.
“You can’t engage in this sort of conduct to stop someone from engaging in free speech,” said Steven L. Tiedemann, a Westminster solo practitioner representing the plaintiffs, nine of whom live in Maryland.
Tiedemann said he is handling the case pro bono after the matter was referred to him by the Alliance Defending Freedom. He has previously handled pro bono cases involving right-to-life, religious freedom and family values issues. The lawsuit began with a few plaintiffs but Tiedemann said he decided to seek class action as word spread and more of the people identified on the website contacted him.
The lawsuit alleges the harassing calls, letters and emails from Voice of Choice’s “minions” have brought unreasonable publicity to the plaintiffs’ private lives.
“Protesting at an abortion clinic, which is protected by the First Amendment, does not make someone a ‘Bully,’” the lawsuit states.
Voice of Choice was founded by Todd Stave, the landlord of the Germantown office of LeRoy Carhart, one of the few doctors in the country who will perform late-term abortions. The nonprofit was formed after anti-abortion activists protesting the clinic picketed a back-to-school night at Stave’s daughter’s middle school in September 2011, according to the lawsuit and news reports at the time.
Stave’s late father founded the Germantown Reproductive Health Clinic and had his College Park abortion clinic firebombed in the 1980s.
According to its website, Voice of Choice promotes a “calm, measured response to anti-abortion activists who engage in misguided, raging protest tactics.” The site asks visitors using the database to never argue with the anti-abortion protesters and remain peaceful.
But Tiedemann said at least one of his clients received a letter with no return address that read, “Now I know where you live.”
He also said the “Bully” list contains many more people than were present at the middle-school picket, the source of Stave’s actions. The picketers were trying to “stop commerce” whereas Stave is “intimidating people” from using their First Amendment rights, Tiedemann said.
In an interview Friday, Stave said he had not heard of any instances of Voice of Choice users harassing or threatening the “Bullies.”
Stave, who had not been served with the lawsuit, said contact information is not posted haphazardly on the website.
“We do our homework before we put names up there to make sure in the information is accurate,” he said. “We take reasonable care.”
Voice of Choice will also remove information they are told is inaccurate, he added.
Stave compared the information available on his site to the information found on AbortionDocs.org, which is run by pro-life group Operation Rescue and features photos, addresses and phone numbers for abortion providers.
The lawsuit seeks $30 million in punitive damages and $13.2 million in compensatory damages, or $100,000 for each current plaintiff. But Tiedemann said the endgame is not about the money.
“I want Mr. Stave to have his First Amendment rights,” he said. “I just don’t want my clients’ names and addresses posted.”
The class action was filed in U.S. District Court and assigned to Judge Roger W. Titus in Greenbelt.
Also on Friday, Tiedemann filed a separate action in that court on behalf of a North Carolina photographer, who is seeking $150,000 for copyright infringement for use of one of her photos on the Voice of Choice website. That action was assigned to Senior Judge Peter J. Messitte.
He is also filing suit in Montgomery County Circuit Court on behalf of a minor whose photo allegedly was mistakenly placed on the Voice of Choice website next to the contact information for her mother. That photo has been taken down, according to Tiedemann.