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The Frederick Douglass Foundation v. District of Columbia

Description:  The Frederick Douglass Foundation and Students for Life of America filed a lawsuit against Washington, D.C. after city officials refused to grant permission for the two advocacy groups to paint a pro-life message on a city street shortly after city officials allowed the painting of other messages on a different street. When members of the pro-life groups began to chalk temporary messages on a sidewalk, police arrested them.


Students chalking a "Black Pre-Born Lives Matter" message on a Washington, D.C., street
Friday, Oct 1, 2021

WASHINGTON – Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing two nonprofit organizations whose request to paint a pro-life message on a street was denied by the city of Washington—despite the city sanctioning other street messages—appealed their case Thursday to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit after a lower court dismissed their case earlier this month.

The Frederick Douglass Foundation and Students for Life of America filed a lawsuit in November of last year after city officials refused to grant permission for the two advocacy groups to paint a pro-life message on a city street shortly after city officials allowed the painting of other messages on a different street. Even when members of the pro-life groups began to chalk temporary messages on a sidewalk, police arrested them.

“Every American deserves for their voice to be heard as they engage in important cultural and political issues of the day,” said ADF Legal Counsel Elissa Graves. “What kind of message are D.C. officials sending when they censor and arrest those with whom they disagree? We have seen a new level of hypocrisy and discrimination from government officials as they bless certain messages prominently displayed in the city and ban others from even being temporarily chalked on a sidewalk. Members of the Frederick Douglass Foundation and Students for Life of America have the freedom and right under the First Amendment to express their views like everyone else; we hope the appeals court will swiftly take up this critical free speech case.”

In June 2020, a mural reading “Black Lives Matter” was created using permanent yellow paint, the length of an entire city block. Shortly after, another mural reading “Defund the Police” was also painted on the street. The Frederick Douglass Foundation and Students for Life of America then sought to paint a similar mural outside of the Planned Parenthood Carol Whitehill Moses Center with the message “Black Pre-Born Lives Matter,” but the city refused to grant them a permit. When two students decided to chalk a message on the sidewalk—as the First Amendment allows—they were promptly arrested by Washington police. Shortly thereafter, ADF attorneys filed The Frederick Douglass Foundation v. District of Columbia on behalf of the two pro-life groups.

“The city shouldn’t allow some groups to participate in the public forum and shun others from doing so just because city officials disagree with their viewpoint,” said Frederick Douglass Foundation Virginia Chapter President J.R. Gurley. “The First Amendment protects our right to peacefully share our pro-life message in Washington, D.C. without fear of unjust government punishment.”

“Our students courageously speak out on behalf of society’s most vulnerable citizens—the unborn—even when faced with government discrimination and hostility,” said Students for Life of America President Kristan Hawkins. “The Constitution guarantees the right to peacefully express our views in the public square; the First Amendment prohibits the government from picking and choosing whose speech to allow.”

In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court wrote in its decision in National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra that “the people lose when the government is the one deciding which ideas should prevail.”


Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, parental rights, and the sanctity of life.

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ABOUT Elissa Graves

Elissa Graves serves as legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, where she is a key member of the Center for Life. Since joining ADF in 2013, Graves has focused her efforts on protecting the First Amendment freedoms of pro-life pregnancy centers and their staff, as well as pro-life sidewalk counselors. Graves earned her Juris Doctor at the University of Texas School of Law in 2013. She is member of the state bars of Arizona, Texas, and the District of Columbia. Graves is also admitted to multiple federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court.