By Mary Kelli Bridges, Staff Writer, Naples Daily News
In an ironic move Wednesday, anti-abortionists sued Lee County Sheriff John McDougall – an outspoken opponent of abortion – for not allowing them to approach clients in front of an abortion clinic in North Fort Myers.
It’s an issue that has pulled McDougall, who has come under fire countless times in the past for voicing his opinion that doctors who perform abortions are “baby-killers,” in two directions.
Though he says the anti-abortionists have no legal standing for the federal lawsuit – which he believes will be thrown out of court quickly – he also said he understands why they’re forcing the issue.
Lee County Sheriff John McDougall
“In an odd way, I really do wish they could prevail,” McDougall said.
But earlier this month McDougall proved that he wasn’t willing to allow anyone, including those with his similar beliefs, to break laws.
On July 13, Lee County sheriff’s deputies issued trespassing warnings to anti-abortionists who up until then had visited the Southwest Florida Women’s Clinic in North Fort Myers on a regular basis to distribute anti-abortion information to clients. The warnings came after Dr. Ali Azima, who runs the clinic, told deputies he didn’t want the protesters on the clinic’s private property.
The sheriff agreed to respect Azima’s request and decided to follow clinic-violence guidelines approved this year by a law enforcement think tank.
The guidelines are based on the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act of 1994. The law requires that clinic entrances not be blocked, so that doctors and patients are protected from intimidation or harassment.
However, that same act allows health-care counselors to approach patients, attorney Christopher F. Sapp said.
Two of those served with trespassing warnings, Robert Smith and Ray Sienkiewicz, call themselves “sidewalk counselors.” They are suing McDougall, as an individual and in his role as Lee County’s sheriff, in the U.S. District Court’s Middle District of Florida for allegedly violating the federal act.
In a written statement faxed from Sapp’s office, the men allege McDougall has said he is under pressure from people in Washington, D.C., to put a stop to their “counseling and referral program.”
“According to McDougall, powerful people in Washington want us stopped,” the statement says. “Apparently, he has agreed to help them.”
In the complaint, the men are suing John and Jane Doe, in addition to the sheriff, Sapp said. He said John and Jane Doe represent anyone who is pressuring the sheriff and could be included by name in the suit in the future.
McDougall denies receiving any pressure.
The abortion protesters are described in the civil complaint as “brave people who reach out to the mothers and fathers of unborn children at abortion clinics, offering love and help, rather than debate or condemnation.”
The sheriff has said that the clinic is on private property and if protesters want to distribute information, they must do so on public property, which is a block away. If they continue to trespass, the sheriff has said, they could be arrested.
Smith and Sienkiewicz see that as a threat and violation of the act.
“Defendant, John McDougall, intentionally and unlawfully caused these threats and intimidation by ordering his deputies to threaten plaintiffs with physical removal from the facility,” according to the complaint.
They are asking for an injunction allowing them to protest in front of the clinic, want $5,000 for each alleged violation of the act and between $15,000 and $25,000 in punitive damages.
“We believe that Sheriff McDougall has unlawfully prevented us from offering love and help to the girls being brought to Ali Azima’s abortuary,” according to the statement.
Sienkiewicz, who said he is a member of Referral Educational and Counseling Help, an outreach program that tries to provide pregnant women with information offering alternatives to abortion, said it’s impossible to counsel women from the area McDougall has specified.
Still, the men haven’t returned since July 13.
“That would probably force an arrest, which we don’t want to happen,” Sienkiewicz said.
Azima said it’s been calmer in the past couple of weeks, because the protesters haven’t been in front of the clinic. He adamantly denies that Smith and Sienkiewicz or their friends are counselors.
“They are approaching patients and they are intimidating them and frightening them,” Azima said.
He said he’s received complaints from many patients, including women who come to the clinic for routine checkups.
“There hasn’t been even one person who comes inside the clinic and said they have counseled them,” Azima said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Douglas Molloy said he can’t comment about the merits of the civil suit, but said McDougall has gone out of his way to make sure he’s protecting the rights of the abortion protesters, the health-care providers and potential clients.
“I would say that Sheriff McDougall at all times has acted professionally and within the definitions of the FACE Act,” Molloy said.
Last week, the U.S. Attorney’s Office and McDougall agreed to host a meeting with Azima and abortion protesters to help solve the disagreement. But neither Azima nor anti-abortionists showed up.
That was the second time law enforcement officials met to discuss the act and how to deal with possible violations, Molloy said.
The first time was in June and included officials from McDougall’s office, the FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The meeting was at McDougall’s request, Molloy said.
“What the sheriff wanted to do was give full protection of the law to all the sides the FACE Act protects,” Molloy said.
A hearing on the legal challenge hasn’t been scheduled.