Lefemine v. Wideman, No. 10-1905

Decided Mar. 5, 2012

Steven Lefemine and the Columbia Christians for Life, an organization devoted to the awareness and protestation of “the horrors of abortion,” held a demonstration on the corner of a busy intersection that included preaching, giving out pamphlets, and the depiction of graphic images of aborted fetuses. After a number of complaints were reported, the local sheriff’s office demanded that the demonstrators remove the signs or face criminal action. Though some accounts hinted that the demonstrators had gone into the streets and impeded traffic, the sheriff’s office told Lefemine that he had to stop showing the pictures because they were “offensive.” Lefemine then brought a § 1983 claim against the office and the officers, including Sheriff Wideman, in their individual capacities. The district ruled that the officers had infringed the demonstrator’s First Amendment rights and were granted injunctive relief from having their future protests impeded. However, the court found that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity and could not be sued in their individual capacities. Also, the judge denied the plaintiffs’ attorney’s fees.

Both sides appealed the district court’s decision to the Fourth Circuit. Neither side disputed the finding below that the sheriff’s office had violated the demonstrator’s First Amendment rights and the appellate court therefore treated the finding as true without evaluation of its merits. Lefemine appealed the finding of qualified immunity, the failure of the district court to grant declaratory relief, and the failure to award attorney’s fees. The sheriff’s office appealed only the grant of future injunctive relief against a deputy that was no longer employed with the office.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed on all grounds. The court held that the officers were entitled to qualified immunity because they were not “plainly incompetent” or “knowingly violat[ing] the law” when they forced the demonstrators to remove their signs. The court also held that there was no need to remand the case for a more explicit declaratory judgment that the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights were violated. The judge decided in their favor and granted injunctive relief; doing more would be unnecessarily duplicative. Moreover, the court could not find that the district judge had abused his discretion by not awarding attorney’s fees as there was no evidence that the denial was based on “mistaken legal principles or clearly erroneous factual findings.” Finally, the court held that it was not an abuse of discretion to enjoin the former deputy from engaging in future content-based restrictions on speech. Though he is no longer with the same department, he is still a police officer and the danger still exists that he may abuse his position to infringe on people’s First Amendment rights.

Full Opinion

-C. Alexander Cable

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