Anti-Abortion Protester Entitled to Fees in Free-Speech Dispute

By Andrew Lu on November 06, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

An anti-abortion protester who won the right to carry signs showing graphic images of aborted fetuses is also entitled to win attorneys' fees, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.

Justices ruled that Steven Lafemine qualified as a civil rights advocate, entitling him to claim fees after winning his lawsuit against a local government, reports the Los Angeles Times.

In 2005, Lefemine was protesting abortion at a busy intersection in Greenwood County, S.C. He and a group of about 20 protesters were holding up signs with graphic images of aborted fetuses. Several motorists complained, and a local law-enforcement officer told Lefemine to take down the signs because they were causing a traffic disturbance.

Lefemine did as he was told and removed the signs. However, he later filed a lawsuit against the local sheriff for violating his free speech rights, reports the Times.

A federal judge in South Carolina ruled in favor of Lefemine, saying that the protester had a constitutional right to carry the graphic signs so long as he did not create a traffic disturbance. But while ruling for Lefemine, the judge also shielded the sheriff and city officials from paying damages and denied attorneys' fees. The decision to deny attorneys' fees was upheld by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Supreme Court reviewed only the attorneys' fees issue in Lefemine's case, and reversed the lower courts. In an unsigned opinion, the Supreme Court found that the anti-abortion protester was no different than any other civil-rights advocate who can sue and win fees pursuant to the Civil Rights Attorneys Fees Act of 1976.

This Act was drafted at a time when issues like school desegregation were in the news. But the Supreme Court found that the law also applied to other plaintiffs who sue over constitutional rights, like anti-abortion protesters suing for their free speech rights.

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