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TRI In The News

Authorities Wield 'Noise Ordinance' to Silence Pro-Life Speech

A fight has erupted in Oklahoma over a noise ordinance being used by authorities to target a pro-life activist who is scheduled for trial in October on a charge of making too much.

But it appears the fight is about a lot more than any actual noise that was, or wasn’t there, according to the Rutherford Institute, which is defending Toby Harmon.

In fact, Institute chief John W. Whitehead, a constitutional attorney and chief of Rutherford, explained, “It may seem trivial to be debating the merits of free speech at a time when unarmed citizens are being shot, stripped, searched, choked, beaten and tasered by police for little more than daring to frown, smile, question, challenge an order or just breathe.

“However, while the First Amendment provides no tangible protection against a gun wielded by a government agent, nor will it save you from being wrongly arrested or illegally searched, or having your property seized in order to fatten the wallets of government agencies, without the First Amendment, we are utterly helpless.”

He said, “The unspoken freedom enshrined in the First Amendment is the right to think freely and openly debate issues without being muzzled or treated like a criminal. Free-speech zones, bubble zones, trespass zones, anti-bullying legislation, zero-tolerance policies, hate-crime laws, overly vague noise ordinances and a host of other legalistic maladies dreamed up by politicians and prosecutors have conspired to corrode our core freedoms.

“No longer are we a nation of constitutional purists for whom the Bill of Rights serves as the ultimate authority. Instead, we have litigated and legislated our way into a new governmental framework where the dictates of petty bureaucrats carry greater weight than the inalienable rights of the citizenry,” he said.

The Rutherford plans to argue at a trial scheduled in October that the ordinance is too vague and overbroad to be enforced.

If it is enforced, and against Harmon, he could face 60 days in jail and a $750 fine.

The fight happened after, several times a week, Harmon situated himself near the Abortion Surgery Center in the city of Norman to preach the Christian gospel to the public and urge women entering the center not to follow through with an abortion.

Harmon, a member of the Abolitionist Society of Norman, routinely used a small amplification device “without incident in order to be heard without having to shout or scream,” the institute said.

Then on March 4, 2016, Harmon was with 50 other protesters, some of whom were gathering signatures relating to state legislation, when police officers cited him for disturbing the peace.

But officers never measured the decibel level of his speech, and the charge later was simply swapped out for one that suggested using amplifying equipment was a “noise disturbance.”

The definition in the law defines that as “any sound which annoys or disturbs.”

The same issue has been fought out before, as have fights over abortion business “bubble zones” in which they’ve tried to restrict public statements, even the presence of the public.

In one prominent case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court, the justices struck down a bubble zone provision in Massachusetts, triggering the abandonment of similar restrictions across the country.

Troy Newman, chief of Operation Rescue, said at the time he had battled such bubble zones two decades ago in California, and noted that the “far left” will stop at nothing to silence the pro-life message, and “ultimately saving babies.”