JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - Fondren residents and business owners likely won’t notice that the city of Jackson lifted its ban on protests around the state’s only abortion clinic.
That’s because the rules were never being enforced anyway.
“The decision not to enforce was based on the fact that there was pending litigation,” Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said.
In October 2019, the city council approved amending city code to limit protest activities around health clinics.
The measure was designed to cut down on complaints about protesters at the Jackson Women’s Health Organization in the Fondren Business District.
Among concerns, business owners in the area said protesters were disturbing their customers through the use loudspeakers and through displaying signs showing explicit images.
The rules banned individuals at or near health facilities from approaching within eight feet of any person without consent, for the purpose of engaging in various forms of speech such as counseling, education, or distributing leaflets.
Provisions also prohibited people from congregating or demonstrating within 15 feet of health clinic entrances, and the use any amplified sound, according to a Mississippi Justice Institute (MJI) news release.
Lumumba said the rules were passed to address the concerns raised by business and residents, who he called the “unintended targets” of the protests.
Even so, shortly after the rules were passed, they were challenged in state and federal court on the grounds of constitutionality.
As a result of those challenges, the city council approved lifting the bans this week.
Pro-life activists are cheering the decision. However, some leaders in the Fondren community are bracing for what they will believe will be more intrusive protest activities.
“The days they come in, they blare (loudspeakers) early, waking up people in their apartments,” said Mike Peters
Peters owns several properties in the Fondren area, including Duling Hall and Fondren Corner.
He said the protesters have been showing up for years and never stopped, even after the ordinance was passed.
“They accost people who have nothing to do with the abortion deal. They park in customer spaces and stay there for hours and hours,” he said.
“All they want to do is talk about the violation of their rights, but they’re violating our rights to have a business and to have customers walk in without (being hollered at). Our rights for those things don’t matter.”
Suits were filed by MJI, on the behalf of Sidewalk Advocates for Life, and by the Center for Religious Expression, on behalf of Philip Benham, a pro-life activist from Concord, N.C.
In court documents, Benham admits to using a loudspeaker when protesting at abortion clinics.
MJI Director Aaron Rice, though, said his clients “only engage in peaceful conversation” when protesting.
On November 12, U.S. District Judge Henry Wingate granted a preliminary injunction in the case, preventing the city from enforcing the rules.
The injunction was likely a sign that the rules would be overturned had the court case gone forward, according to Benham attorney Nathan Kellum.
Days later on November 16, City Attorney Tim Howard notified the court that the ordinances had been repealed and asked for a motion to dismiss, arguing the matter is now moot.
Kellum, though, said in a November 16 filing, that he needed more time to respond to the city’s motion.
He also is arguing that the city failed to “follow statutory guidelines for proper notice, signings, recordings and publishing” for changing ordinances.
According to court documents, the city council repealed code section 86-401 through 86-409 at a November 16 meeting.
Documents further show that the city “found ‘good cause,’ as defined by Section 21-13-11 of the Mississippi Code of 1972 for this order to take immediate effect.”
State code states that any ordinance that would immediately preserve “the public peace, health or safety or for other good cause, which is adopted by unanimous vote of all members of the governing body, may be made effective from and after its passage.”
The council approved lifting the ban on a 4-0 vote, with Council members Aaron Banks, Virgi Lindsay, De’Keither Stamps and Charles Tillman voting in favor, minutes show. Councilmen Ashby Foote and Kenneth Stokes were absent from the meeting.
Whether the meeting was properly noticed remains to be seen. On Friday, November 13, the council issued a public notice for two special meetings to be held on Monday, November 16.
However, that notice did not mention that ordinances would be amended or discussed.
Ward One Councilman Ashby Foote, who was absent from the meeting, was unaware that the ordinance had been taken up when he spoke to WLBT.