Judge denies protection orders filed against pro-abortion advocates in Bristol harassment lawsuit

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BRISTOL, Tenn. (WJHL)- A judge has denied protection orders a pro-life advocate filed against four pro-choice advocates in Sullivan County Chancery Court.

The harassment lawsuit centered around escalating disputes between groups outside Bristol Regional Women’s Center, which performs surgical abortions.

Pro-life advocate and plaintiff Erika Schanzenbach filed for protection orders against four members of the group ‘Pro-Choice Bristol.’ Schanzenbach’s case drew the legal support of a national public interest law firm, the Thomas More Society. Attorneys from the Chicago-based firm were in Bristol to represent Schanzenbach in Tuesday’s lengthy court hearing.

Erika Schanzenbach

The defendants were Pro-Choice Bristol members Denise Skeen, Rowan Skeen, Alethea Skeen, and Cheryl Hanzlik. Denise and her daughters Rowan and Alethea were present in court Tuesday, while Hanzlik was absent. The four were accused of stalking by Schanzenbach.

Denise, Alethea, and Rowan Skeen

Schanzenbach is labeled a pro-life witness and sidewalk counselor by the Thomas More Society. She said in court she’s advocated outside Bristol Regional Women’s Center for seven years. For part of this time, Schanzenbach has worn a body camera while doing so. These videos were shown for several hours in court as evidence. 

Videos shown in court depicted defendants pushing up against Schanzenbach’s sign, making lewd comments, blaring bullhorns near her face, blasting music near her, following her to her car, and more. Pro-Choice Bristol group members were also shown carrying umbrellas to block Schanzenbach’s signs from view.

Body camera footage showing the conduct of pro-choice advocates was shown as evidence in court

Schanzenbach’s attorneys said they were arguing for her First Amendment rights.

“The person who wants to hang out on a roadside, on public right of way, and express things to people in vicinity, he has every right to do that,” attorney Martin Cannon said in court.

Schanzenbach said the actions of the defendants caused her stress, anxiety, and frustration.

“They step on my feet, on my toes,” she testified. “I’m walking away from them. They follow me, stepping on my feet, the back of my heels.”

But defense attorney Tom Jessee questioned Schanzenbach’s practice of addressing patients coming into the clinic to potentially receive abortions. He also asked if Schanzenbach’s signs depicting dead fetuses were offensive to patients. 

“And if the Skeens are offended by you offending patients, harassing patients, you think they should stop, not you?” Jessee questioned Schanzenbach during cross-examination.

Schanzenbach said she kept coming back to the clinic because she believed God’s word was telling her to speak up. She also said during cross-examination she wasn’t sure of the property lines of the clinic, and that an office manager for the clinic had previously told her to leave their driveway.

Judge William Rogers ultimately ruled on the side of the defense, denying all four protection orders.

“Basically the petitioner who asked for the order of protection had not met her burden of proof to show evidence she would be entitled to one. And that she didn’t seem to be upset from the activities of my clients,” Jessee told News Channel 11 after the hearing.

Cannon said the judge’s ruling did not mean he condoned the actions of the four defendants.

“He made the finding that the respondents conduct is reprehensible. He plainly doesn’t like it,” Cannon told News Channel 11. “In fact you could almost say he encouraged us to take the matter into a different forum to seek relief there. I don’t think he has a problem with us getting the relief we’re seeking. He just didn’t feel the stalking protection order was the way to do that.”

Lawyers for both sides have previously said they’ve spoken with Bristol city leaders and the police department when it comes to mounting safety concerns outside the clinic. Schanzenbach testified in court that she had met with city leaders, law enforcement, and the DA’s office about her concerns.

Jessee believes both the pro and anti-abortion sides of the dispute should meet collectively with leaders.

“Both sets of protesters have amplified sound, meaning megaphones and speech amplification devices. It’s my option neither of them should have them, because I think that violates the sound ordinance in Bristol,” said Jessee. “If they just had to talk with their normal voice, a lot of this might calm down. But they haven’t been willing to do that. Hopefully we’ll have a meeting to get it resolved now that this has been dismissed.”

But attorneys for the Thomas More Society indicated Tuesday’s ruling may not be the end of legal action they can take on behalf of Schanzenbach. Cannon said they had “a lot of options” including federal court, state court, or an appeal.

“[The judge] dismissed the actions without prejudice,” said Cannon. “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen that done after a trial. What he’s doing is leaving the door open for us to file anywhere else we want, without being affected by this ruling.”

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