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Hagerstown could limit place and time of abortion protests

August 20, 2008|By DAN DEARTH

HAGERSTOWN -- Protesters opposing abortion could be required to obtain a permit before they hold further demonstrations in downtown Hagerstown.

On Tuesday, the Hagerstown City Council discussed an abortion protest last month on West Washington Street in which some demonstrators held signs that depicted aborted fetuses.

Councilwoman Kelly S. Cromer said a portion of the protest occurred during lunchtime, prompting several restaurant owners to complain that the graphic signs drove away business. In some cases, she said, the protesters couldn't be avoided.

Cromer said she left her office on nearby Summit Avenue to go to lunch and ran directly into the protesters. The signs made her lose her appetite, she said.

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"I think we can limit the time and place that they can do that," Cromer said. "... You (couldn't) avert your eyes. The pictures (were) bigger than I am ... There was nowhere you could walk to escape it."

City Attorney Mark Boyer told the council that protesters who demonstrate on public property enjoy the highest level of protection from the First Amendment. But the city could require the protesters to obtain a permit, Boyer said, if the city government showed it had a legitimate interest to do so. The permit would set a place and time where the protesters could demonstrate.

Boyer said he would research whether protesters would be required to obtain a permit under two circumstances:

o If the city would acquire additional expenses to have extra police officers on duty during the demonstration

o If the protesters were causing restaurants to lose business

Boyer said he also would check with the Maryland Municipal League to determine whether other cities have dealt with similar situations and, if so, could offer advice.

Councilman Lewis C. Metzner said he would like to see the city reason with the protesters.

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