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DC Officials Lose After Handcuffing Pro-Life Speech

The Frederick Douglass Foundation was silenced because government officials didn’t like its message.
Alliance Defending Freedom
The Frederick Douglass Foundation was silenced because government officials didn’t like its message.

During significant protest activity in Washington, D.C., in June 2020, two murals appeared on the streets of the city in bright yellow, permanent paint. One proclaimed “Black Lives Matter” and the other “Defund the Police.” The first was commissioned by D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser.

This gave a pair of pro-life organizations an idea—an idea that would ultimately lead to the unjust arrest of two students.

Read more about the details of this case below.

Student advocates were arrested after they started writing a pro-life message in sidewalk chalk.

What are the Frederick Douglass Foundation and Students for Life of America?

The Frederick Douglass Foundation is a national education and public-policy organization that advocates free-market and limited-government ideas as solutions to the hardest problems facing our nation.

Students for Life of America (SFLA) is the nation’s largest youth pro-life organization. SFLA exists to recruit, train, and mobilize students and young adults to abolish abortion.

These two organizations decided to paint a similar mural—in an identical style—outside of a Planned Parenthood facility in D.C. This mural was to read, “Black Pre-Born Lives Matter,” pointing out the fact that Planned Parenthood and the abortion industry kill thousands of unborn black children every year. And they planned a rally in August to do just that.

Before their rally, these two groups received a permit for the assembly as well as verbal confirmation from a police officer that they would be able to paint their message on the street.

But when the rally participants arrived, they were greeted by several police cars and a group of law enforcement officers. The officers informed them that if they wrote their message on the street or even on the public sidewalk, they would be arrested.

When two students started to draw this message on the public walkway in washable sidewalk chalk, they were immediately arrested. They weren’t even able to finish writing the intended message.

This is unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination. The city cannot allow some messages to be permanently painted on their streets and then deny other groups the same right just because it doesn’t like their message.

That’s why Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit against the city on behalf of the Frederick Douglass Foundation and SFLA.

The Frederick Douglass Foundation v. District of Columbia

The Frederick Douglass Foundation and SFLA wanted to paint their message in exactly the same manner that the “Black Lives Matter” and “Defund the Police” messages were painted. Yet they were stopped and told that their actions would be considered the “defacement of public property.”

And while such laws are well-intentioned—meant to prohibit criminal activity—they cannot be used as a tool to silence disfavored speech. But that is exactly what is happening here.

Why is one yellow-painted message considered defacement of public property while two other yellow-painted messages are allowed—and one even encouraged—by the D.C. mayor?

The answer is simple: the government favors these two messages over the message “Black Pre-Born Lives Matter.”

In light of this unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination, ADF attorneys filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Frederick Douglass Foundation and SFLA in November 2020, but a federal district court dismissed the case.

ADF then appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which in August 2023 reversed the lower court’s decision and allowed the lawsuit to proceed.

What’s at stake?

Every individual and organization should be able to peacefully express their beliefs, but the District of Columbia is picking winners and silencing those who hold views it doesn’t like. That’s unconstitutional. And that’s why ADF stepped in.

The government can’t pick winners and losers when it comes to free speech. It has a duty to uphold that freedom for all its citizens—regardless of whether it agrees with them.

Case timeline

  • November 2020: ADF attorneys representing the Frederick Douglass Foundation and SFLA filed a lawsuit against the District.
  • October 2021: ADF attorneys appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit after a lower court dismissed the case.
  • August 2023: The D.C. Circuit Court reversed the lower court’s decision and ruled that the lawsuit could proceed.

The bottom line

The right to free speech is for everyone—not just those in power. The government can’t silence speakers just because it doesn’t like what they say.

Learn more:

ADF explains the background of the lawsuit and the core issue at the heart of the case:

Representatives from SFLA and the Frederick Douglass Foundation share how they were treated by government officials: