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Abortion opponent files First Amendment lawsuit over Baltimore sign regulations

Abortion opponent files First Amendment lawsuit over Baltimore sign regulations

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A Maryland man who seeks to discourage abortions outside a Planned Parenthood building in Baltimore is suing over the city’s signage rules, which require him to get a permit before placing signs on the sidewalk outside the building.

The First Amendment lawsuit claims the city’s regulations have made it impossible for the plaintiff, John Roswell, to use standalone A-frame signs as he communicates with women who enter and exit the Planned Parenthood on North Howard Street.

The signs show fetuses at various stages of development and include the statement “Unborn babies are human and feel pain,” according to the complaint.

Roswell, a Howard County resident, has regularly stood outside the Planned Parenthood building for years, the complaint claims, in order to present alternatives to abortion and share his “deeply held religious convictions that human lives are being terminated inside the facility.”

The complaint alleges that in January 2020, an inspector from Baltimore’s Department of Housing and Community Development told Roswell he needed a permit to put his signs on the sidewalk and that he could be subject to a fine of $500 per day without one.

In a news release, the law firm representing Roswell said the signs required two permits, which could “only be obtained via a costly and burdensome process, and can be granted, denied, or revoked at the unfettered discretion of the City of Baltimore and its employees.”

Roswell is represented by the Thomas More Society, a national law firm with a “pro-life mission,” according to its website. The firm lists involvement in more than a dozen cases related to abortion across the country.

Roswell’s complaint also alleges that Baltimore’s permit process required him to get the consent of the adjacent landowner — in this case, the Planned Parenthood, which Roswell claims is hostile to his beliefs.

The city cited Roswell in July 2020. He appealed, and his fine was reduced to $10, but Roswell brought the lawsuit because he feels it is impossible to meet Baltimore’s permitting requirements.

“With its restrictive permit process, for a situation that should not warrant permitting, the City of Baltimore is violating John Roswell’s guaranteed rights to free speech and freedom of expression,” said Cameron Guenzel, one of Roswell’s attorneys.

The lawsuit claims that the sidewalk is a traditional public forum and that Roswell’s religious and political speech, including his standalone signs, are protected by the First Amendment. The complaint seeks an injunction blocking the city from enforcing its signage rules.

The complaint also argues that the city’s rules violate Roswell’s right to free exercise of religion.

James Bentley, a spokesperson for Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, said the city is “aware of the filing and will respond in the appropriate legal forum.”

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