Civic Engagement Education Nebraska Politics Published

The Constitution According to Fartenberry: The Congressman Once Defended Aggressive Protests

Boy, do I have a doozy of a tale from the archives for you. It’s about how Lincoln dealt with aggressive political protests in the 1990s, when lots of people on both sides of the aisle seemed to believe “Free speech is for me but not for thee.” I’ll go ahead and let you know that the punch line is going to be Jeff Fartenberry.

Removable googly eye stickers placed by yours truly on a portrait at Congressman Jeff Fortenberry’s office. Fortenberry, along with Senator Deb Fischer, has demanded that a Lincoln woman (who contributes to this blog) face criminal charges for allegedly putting googly eyes on a campaign sign and a sticker on a campaign office door.

Part I: Anti-Abortion Protesters Targeted an Abortion Doctor’s House

In 1994, pro-life activists from Omaha were coming to Lincoln to aggressively protest an abortion doctor, Winston Crabb. Between September and December of 1994 Crabb called the police nine times about protests at his home and work. At first protesters stood outside his house in the Country Club neighborhood holding signs. They put stickers on the front door of his home, and placed a device on his office door that kept him from entering. Twice the protesters went inside his office to yell anti-abortion comments at him. One protester was cited for disturbing the peace for one of those visits but the charge was dismissed.

On another occasion, two of the protesters followed Crabb and his wife from their house to a restaurant, occupied an adjacent table, and spoke loudly about abortion as the couple ate. This prompted Crabb to seek a protection order against those two protesters–the judge granted the order, but declined to extend it to Crabb’s wife, and clarified that Crabb was granted the order because the protesters had, in some of these actions, intended to terrify him, but had not targeted his wife. Indeed, these actions were likely terrifying, because anti-abortion activists had become deadly violent:

  • In 1993 anti-abortion activists murdered Dr. David Gunn in Florida.
  • The same year another anti-abortion activist shot and wounded George Tiller in Kansas. (Tiller would be shot again, this time fatally, in 2009.)
  • In 1994 they murdered Dr. John Bayard Britton and a women’s clinic volunteer, James H. Barrett, and wounded Barrett’s wife.
  • The same month Lincoln’s Dr. Crabb sought this protection order, an anti-abortion activist in Massachusetts shot and killed two Planned Parenthood workers and injured five others.

To be an abortion provider with anti-abortion activists following you around town was, understandably, terrifying. Any anti-abortion protester following a doctor in 1994 knew that at least a dozen abortion clinic workers had been killed or injured by people in their movement in just the previous couple of years. Even so, the disturbing the peace charge was dropped.

Lincoln’s City Council responded to these protests by passing an ordinance regulating the targeted protests of residences. It’s still on the books. In Lincoln, if you want to protest a person’s residence, city code says you can’t stand in front of their home or their next-door neighbors’ homes–you can’t get closer than a public sidewalk across the street.

Two of the the anti-abortion protesters continued to picket outside the Crabb home, which led them to be convicted for continual violations of the ordinance. Eventually the city required protesters to seek a parade permit and limited them to one pass by the house before it counted as a targeted protest of a residence.

Part II: The Protesters Go to the Doctor’s Church

So the protesters found a more effective way to disrupt. They moved the protests to the public sidewalk outside the church where Dr. Crabb was an elder, Westminster Presbyterian Church at 2110 Sheridan.

An anti-abortion protester stands near Westminster Presbyterian Church in 1998.

Week after week, the protesters stood on the sidewalk near the entrance to the church with graphic signs. Sometimes they confronted people driving or walking into the church. According to churchgoers, the protesters traumatized children by putting the graphic signs in front of them. One set of parents said the protesters entered the intersection and put a photo of an aborted fetus against the back window of their van for their children to see. Another parent said one of the protesters said to her son, “Do you know that Dr. Crabb reaches into mothers and pulls out bloody baby parts and kills the babies?” The protesters denied that they targeted children.

The Church was disturbed by the protests and lobbied the City Council to do something about it. The Council drafted another ordinance, this time one that would ban political protests near churches before, during, and after church services.

The Republican mayor of Lincoln, Mike Johanns, quite correctly warned the City Council that this was unconstitutional and that he would veto it. The Council passed it anyway, 4-3. Johanns vetoed, and when proponents picked up another council member, they got the 5-2 vote they needed to override Johanns’s veto. The ordinance went into effect, and was immediately challenged in court. The court issued an injunction against enforcing it, and after the Circuit Court found it unconstitutional, it was revoked in 2000.

But guess who was one of those two city council members who opposed the ordinance? Guess which staunch anti-abortion politician, recently arrived from Louisiana, did not want an ordinance keeping anti-abortion activists from scaring kids and their parents on the way into church, even though anti-abortion activists had recently murdered or wounded over a dozen people? I’ll give you a hint:

Yes, indeed, Jeff Fartenberry. The same Jeff Fartenberry who wants to put someone in jail for sticking googly eyes on a picture of his face. The same Jeff Fartenberry who claims that his family has been terrorized by “political violence.” The same Jeff Fartenberry whose congressional chief of staff tried to get a professor fired for liking a photo of the congressman with googly eyes on it on Facebook.

Yes, this Jeff Fartenberry. He would like someone to go to jail for this heinous act of terrorism, but was a First Amendment absolutist when it came to shoving aborted fetus photos in the faces of kids.

Part III: It Gets Even Worse.

The protests outside Westminster Presbyterian went on for three years. In 2000, police officers who were routinely assigned to keep an eye on the protest then began helping organize and joining the protests on days they were off duty.

Lincoln Police Chief Tom Casady and his legal advisers concluded “the officers have a Constitutional right when off duty to express themselves, and Casady should not keep them from doing so.”

Take a moment and compare this situation to what happened when Courtney Lawton (and I) protested a national alt-right organization at the University of Nebraska in 2017. Lawton, who was not “on duty,” participated in a political protest in a public place. After gross misrepresentations of what went on at the protest, state senators and other Republican officials demanded she be fired, and she was removed from her duties. Both the American Association of University Professors and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education found that this removal violated Lawton’s rights.

Free speech is a messy and precious freedom. We’d all be well advised to remember that opposition is not oppression, and that while threats and violence cross a line, speech must have the power to discomfit if it is to have the power to change.