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Aurora denies harassing protesters
By Amy Boerema | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 8/28/2007 5:03 AM

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While Aurora police may have made one or two mistakes in their handling of Planned Parenthood protesters, officers have never harassed the group, city leaders said Monday.

Their response comes after protesters filed a federal lawsuit Friday against the city, alleging the group has "suffered a barrage of conflicting directions, restrictions and harassment from Aurora's police officers."

Also on Monday, city leaders say they hired an attorney to review the facility's entire development process.

If it shows all parties involved acted appropriately, the city must issue a final occupancy permit for the facility to open Sept. 18, a city memo reads.

The controversial 22,000-square-foot facility, at 3051 E. New York St., is believed to be the nation's largest Planned Parenthood and will perform on-site abortions.

Chicago's Pro-Life Action League, which has mobilized protesting groups, is in the middle of an on-site, "round-the-clock prayer vigil."

Their weekend protest drew a crowd of more than 1,300, organizers and police say, shattering initial estimates of several hundred.

The rally, which also attracted several dozen abortion rights supporters, was peaceful, police said Monday.

Though officers individually are respectful, league spokesman Eric Scheidler said, his group continues to disagree with some orders, saying they violate their First Amendment rights.

His group is seeking injunctive relief from city interference, as protests will continue if the facility opens, they say.

City spokesman Carie Anne Ergo said the filing "shocked" leaders, who have tried to balance the concerns of all sides.

"We really haven't dealt with large-scale protests in the past," she said. "There certainly was some question as to some of the local ordinances and what they allowed."

For example, Scheidler said his group was told they couldn't remain stationary during their vigil.

"That was definitely a mistake," Ergo said. It was corrected as soon as it was realized, she said.

There's also been confusion about staking signs in the ground. Police at times have told protesters they must hold signs and not place them against trees, Scheidler said. Other times, officers have said they didn't need to hold them, he said.

Ergo said a city ordinance prevents signs from being staked in the ground on a public right-of-way, but protesters may carry them.

Protesters have photos displaying other labor union and commercial signs on public property, which shows "blatant viewpoint discrimination," said Tom Brejcha, president of the Thomas More Society, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of Scheidler and his group.

City leaders also are allowing protesters to stake white crosses reading "John Doe Baby" into the ground, after police initially told them they couldn't.

Crosses usually are reserved for car accident victims, Ergo said. Staff have shown discretion in allowing them to stay out temporarily out of respect for the victim's family, she said. "In the same way, the city has, at this point, allowed the crosses there to stay," she said.

The city's main concern now is balancing the right of people to protest with preserving neighborhood peace, she said. Leaders have received numerous complaints about the protesters, whether it be with their crosses or graphic pictures, she said.

As of late Monday, more than 30 protesters were scheduled to speak at today's city council meeting.