Protesters with the anti-abortion Center for Bioethical Reform held up large signs across from the state capitol building in Juneau this week, depicting graphic images of aborted fetuses.
In response to complaints, some state employees tried to block the protest signs with official vehicles.
The incident led Governor Sean Parnell and state Senate Republicans to charge the demonstrators’ free speech rights had been violated.
The signs were hard to miss, showing what the protesters claimed to be the bloody aftermath of an abortion. Officials at the Dimond Courthouse directly across from the capitol received complaints about the images. So, Alaska Court System Deputy Administrative Director Doug Wooliver says a longtime court employee requested state vehicles park in front of the signs.
“Our employee at the court system had received some complaints about the graphic nature of the photographs, particularly given that it was by a daycare center in the Tom Stewart Building,” Wooliver said. “His thought was, well, maybe we can just put some vans in the parking area, which is for loading and unloading and all kinds of regular daily uses anyway, as a way to try to create a buffer.”
Some protesters apparently complained to a state lawmaker, and by Wednesday a video of the incident was posted on the Restoring Liberty PAC website run by failed U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller.
Another heavily edited video posted Friday shows demonstrators trying to block a van from parking in the loading and unloading zone in front of the courthouse. A capitol security official asks a protester not to stand or sit in the middle of the street. When the man refuses, the security guard attempts to escort him to the sidewalk. In the ensuing struggle the protester falls to the ground.
On the Senate floor Friday, Wasilla Republican Mike Dunleavy called it a blatant violation of free speech.
“These protesters were not yelling and screaming. They were not saying anything. They were standing there silently,” Dunleavy said. “Yet we had several vans – state of Alaska vans – park in front of those protesters. We had one of the protesters – it’s on the video – that was manhandled. This is an outrage.”
Governor Parnell released a statement blaming the situation on employees with the court system, the Legislature and the Department of Administration, and calling their actions “totally inappropriate.”
Eagle River Senator Fred Dyson took it a step further while talking to reporters at a Senate Majority press conference on Friday.
“I suspect whoever was responsible will at least get talked to about it,” Dyson said. “And may get time off to work on their resume.”
Andy Mills, a spokesman for Administration Commissioner Becky Hultberg, said the department’s vehicles only blocked the protest for 45 minutes on Tuesday. He said the employees involved would receive training about not interfering with demonstrations.
Legislative Affairs Director Pam Varni denied involvement by employees at her agency.
Wooliver says the court employee realizes it was the wrong decision. However, he says calling it a violation of free speech might be a little strong.
“I don’t know if it violated free speech. They were still on the sidewalk, they were still visible. I think they moved down a few feet,” Wooliver said. “But it was inappropriate on the part of the court. So everybody I think agrees it was not the right call to make.”
According to the Juneau Police Department, the Center for Bioethical Reform did not apply for a parade permit, which would have been needed for a demonstration anywhere off the sidewalk. No arrests were made and the protest wrapped up without further incident Wednesday afternoon.