A group called ‘Alliance Defending Freedom’ sent a letter Monday to the Falls Church Police Department after two officers told several Christmas carolers to stop singing Dec. 19 on a public sidewalk outside of the Falls Church Healthcare Center abortion clinic on South Washington St.
One of the carolers captured the officers on video informing the carolers that their singing could potentially violate a noise ordinance and that they must cease singing.
The letter sent by the Alliance group explains that police cannot use the ordinance to stop a constitutionally protected free speech activity, like common Christmas caroling, on a public sidewalk. The letter asks the city to rescind its ban on Christmas caroling in time for the carolers to return to the sidewalk at noon Wednesday.
“No city ordinance can trump the First Amendment. It’s preposterous to think that any noise ordinance can or should be used to stop the singing of Christmas carols on a public sidewalk,” said ADF Senior Counsel Matt Bowman. “We have come to an odd place in America when an abortion business thinks it can silence Christmas carolers. The police should not be willing to do their bidding.”
In the video, two Falls Church police officers are seen speaking to the carolers while they are singing “Silent Night.” The officers inform the group that “the singing violates our ordinance.” One of them then displays a copy of the city’s noise ordinance, which states, “It shall be unlawful for any person to yell, shout, talk loudly, whistle or sing on any public street or private property in the city at anytime, so as to cause a noise disturbance.”
Mary Flores, the caroler recording the video, then asks for clarification from the officers, “It says here…that there’s no singing allowed?, she asks. “Yes, ma’am,” the officer replies. Flores’s daughter then asks, “Isn’t this public property?” and The officer responds, “Unfortunately it’s a noise ordinance violation, on public or private property.”
The letter claims that “after receiving the officers’ threat of citation under the city ordinance,” Flores and the group stopped their caroling for fear of prosecution. The ordinance imposes a penalty of “confinement in jail for not more than 12 months and a fine of not more than $2,500.00, either or both.”
“The Constitution prohibits the City of Falls Church from threatening pro-lifers with fines and jail time for singing Christmas carols on the public sidewalk…,” the ADF letter explains, concluding that the ordinance violates freedom of speech and is unconstitutionally vague.
Falls Church Police spokesperson Susan Finarelli said the incident was a misunderstanding, and that carolers can continue to sing inasmuch as they do not use bullhorns or electronically amplify their voices in any way, and do not block the sidewalk so that passersby cannot use it.
“On December 19 at about 10:45am, a business called police about a sidewalk being blocked by protesters,” she said. “Officers responded and asked the 25-30 people to move from the sidewalk; they complied. While there the officers explained that the City’s noise ordinance included singing but [they neglected to add] that without amplified sound or disrupting neighbors or businesses, singing is not considered a violation,” she said. “The City of Falls Church Police Department has worked with many protest groups over the years. We will continue to support and defend peaceful protest in the City and respect their First Amendment rights.”
Marsha Doyle, surgical coordinator for the clinic said she personally recognized some of the carolers as regular protestors, but that no one from the clinic called the police. “We didn’t call them,” she said, “but there are other businesses in this building and the protestors were blocking the sidewalk, so maybe it was one of them who called the police.”
For now, Bowman is satisfied. On Tuesday he said the carolers will resume caroling outside the clinic on Wednesday.
“No one should try to shut down Christmas carols on a public sidewalk, and we’re pleased that that city has changed its tune and says it won’t do that again,” he said. “We will continue to monitor the situation to ensure that the carolers will be able to exercise their constitutionally protected freedom to sing tomorrow as planned.”