Councilman pulls bill that sought to ban protests at Baltimore County schools

A Baltimore County Council member has withdrawn a controversial bill that sought to bar protests near public and private schools in the county — a measure that drew wide criticism from organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, the county teachers union and the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, a national anti-abortion organization.

Councilman Todd Huff, a Lutherville Republican, said Tuesday he has asked county attorneys to pull the bill so he could sit down with the teachers' union and "try to see how we can work through this issue, and see what their thought process is" in opposing it.

Huff's measure would have barred protests within 300 feet of schools in Baltimore County during the hour before and after school, and while classes are in session.

When he introduced the legislation, Huff described it as a school safety measure. But several organizations condemned it as unconstitutional and an affront to free speech.

Gregg Cunningham, executive director of the California-based Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, whose Maryland chapter has staged protests in front of some area schools, said recently his group would make a "monster fight out of this," and said of Huff, "This guy better get lawyered up."

Three anti-abortion protests have been staged outside Baltimore County schools this school year, said Charles Herndon, spokesman for the school system. In past years, members of the Westboro Baptist Church — whose anti-gay demonstrations at military funerals and other events led to a Supreme Court ruling in their favor — also have gathered in front of county schools, Herndon said.

Some parents have been upset about protests at schools.

Trish Bisaha, a Perry Hall parent, said she felt rage one morning last fall when she dropped her sophomore son off at school and saw two anti-abortion demonstrators holding large signs depicting dead fetuses. The images were "inappropriate" for children to see, she said, and the signs were a distraction for drivers at an already busy intersection.

"I was livid," Bisaha said. "Many parents are disgusted and upset by it."

Huff said he had not targeted any specific group or protest in his legislation, and that he had simply wanted to "make it so our children can go to school in the morning, do their class work, and go home in the evening without side distractions."

"I was not targeting anybody," he said.

Still, David Rocah, an attorney for the ACLU of Maryland, had called the measure, "blatantly unconstitutional."

"There are all kinds of reasons people protest outside of schools," he said, noting labor, environmental and political demonstrations. "The idea that Councilman Huff or anyone else on the Baltimore County Council would want to prohibit any of this is ridiculous and patently unconstitutional."

Rocah added, "It's kind of a sad commentary on where we are today — that an elected official could have the idea that we need to protect kids from political speech. ... We ought to expose them to more and get them more involved. That's the sign of a healthy democracy and a free society."

The county school system had not taken a position on the bill, and schools spokesman Mychael Dickerson said officials already have authority during school hours to ask people to leave school property if they are "disruptive or trespassing."

Abby Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, had questioned the need, saying protests don't occur on school grounds but on public sidewalks.

"It's not like we have a lot of people protesting outside schools, honestly," she said. "This is draconian measures — for what? This country is founded on free speech. The teachers believe strongly in free speech."

Huff said Tuesday he hoped to work with TABCO and "see if they have any ideas on how they can work to help protect the kids."

Cunningham acknowledged demonstrations such as those organized by the Center of Bio-Ethical Reform are meant to shock — and evoke a response. He said his group's mission is to "expose abortion," and members believe images can influence people. "We're out there to try to change public opinion."

The graphic images used in such protests have prompted some complaints by people who happen upon them. A protest along a highway in Bel Air several years ago upset motorists, prompting several to call police. Maryland State Police arrested 18 members of the anti-abortion group Defend Life, triggering a civil lawsuit. A federal judge ruled that the activists' free-speech rights had been restricted, and the state police settled the civil lawsuit last year for $385,000.

Dennis Robinson, president of the Perry Hall Improvement Association, said some residents have been frustrated by anti-abortion displays outside schools.

"Parents don't want to have to answer the question from their children, 'What's that a picture of, Mommy or Daddy?' " he said. "I'm a parent, and I want to talk to my kids about those things when I think it's an appropriate."

Still, Robinson said, "It's not up to me, and I certainly don't think it's up to the government, to tell people how they should convey their viewpoint."

Jon Meoli of the Baltimore Sun Media Group contributed to this story.