More than a dozen abortion opponents sued the National Archives and Records Administration and the National Air and Space Museum after security guards there ordered them to remove or hide clothing with “pro-life” messages during separate visits while attending the March for Life in Washington, D.C., last month.
Both NARA and the federally funded Smithsonian Institution, which operates the museum, issued statements on the lawsuits and apologized for the incidents, which occurred months after the Supreme Court overturned the federal right to abortion.
Both statements admitted that the security guards were wrong on Jan. 20 to demand they hide or remove the “pro-life” messages while touring the archives and the museum.
NARA is home to the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and other historically significant documents. The Air and Space Museum is the largest of the Smithsonian’s museums. Both entities are located along the Mall in Washington.
“As the home to the original Constitution and Bill of Rights, which enshrine the rights of free speech and religion, we sincerely apologize for this occurrence,” NARA said.
“NARA policy expressly allows all visitors to wear t-shirts, hats, buttons, etc. that display protest language, including religious and political speech,” the statement said. “We are actively investigating to determine what happened,” NARA said it would not comment on the suit itself.
The Smithsonian in its statement said, “A security officer mistakenly told young visitors that their pro-life hats were not permitted in the museum. Asking visitors to remove hats and clothing is not in keeping with our policy or protocols. We provided immediate retraining to prevent a re-occurrence of this kind of error.”
“The Smithsonian welcomes all visitors without regard to their beliefs,” the statement said. “We do not deny access to our museums based on the messages on visitors’ clothing.”
The suits, filed earlier this week in Washington, D.C. federal court, allege the plaintiffs’ civil rights under the First and Fifth amendments of the U.S. Constitution were violated by the NARA, the museum and unidentified security officers on Jan. 20. The March for Life, which opposes abortion, was occurring the same day.
The First Amendment prohibits governments and their agencies from restricting free speech, and the Fifth Amendment guarantees citizens equal protection under the laws.
The plaintiffs in the suits are being represented by lawyers from the American Center for Law & Justice, a conservative, Christian organization.
The suit against the Air and Space Museum said the nearly dozen Catholic plaintiffs were students, parents or chaperones of Our Lady of the Rosary Church and School in Greenville, South Carolina.
All of the plaintiffs were wearing blue hats with the inscription “Rosary Pro-Life,” the suit says. The complaint said they were told to remove those hats are various times and locations in the musuem.
One guard allegedly told several of the plaintiffs, Y’all are about to make my day,” and added, “You’ve been told multiple times to take your hats off, and you have not taken them off. You need to take them off or leave.”
That guard allegedly said, the First Amendment “does not apply here.”
The suit against NARA says, “On January 20, 2023, each of the Plaintiffs visited the National Archives to view those documents that affirm their God-given right to free speech, expression, and their exercise of religious beliefs.”
The adult plaintiffs did not know each other before the lawsuit was filed, the suit says.
Two of the plaintiffs, a Michigan woman identified as Tamara R., and her 17-year-old daughter L.R., were there with a group of about 15 students and parents from L.R.’s Catholic high school, the suit says.
The mother is suing on behalf of her daughter, who “holds a deeply religious belief that she has a religious and moral obligation to speak out against the abortion of innocent babies,” the suit says.
Another plaintiff, Wendilee Walpole Lassiter, is a Virginia resident and Protestant who was with a group of students from her private religious school, Liberty University School of Law, the suit says.
The other plaintiff, Terrie Kallal, is an Illinois resident and a “devout Catholic,” according to the suit.
When L.R., her mom and fellow classmates were in the building’s Rotunda, where the Bill of Rights is housed, a security guard approached them and told L.R. and the other students “to remove all pro-life attire,” the suit says.
L.R. was specifically told to cover her shirt, which said, “Life is a Human Right,” and not to unzip the jacket over it until she left the National Archives, according to the suit.
The guard told her classmates to remove buttons and hats carrying pro-life messages, the suit alleges. One hat said “LIFE always WINS,” and another said, “ProLife,” according to the suit.
“Plaintiff L.R. communicated to a friend via Snapchat while still inside the National Archives, ‘he told me to take off my pro-life pin as I was standing next to the constitution that literally says Freedom of Speech on it,'” the suit alleges.
L.R. later says three different National Archives employees inside the gift shop confronted her classmates and told them to “immediately” remove their pro-life clothing.
During Lassiter’s visit, a guard approached her when she passed through a metal detector and ordered her to remove her sweatshirt, which said, “I am the post-Roe Generation: Law Students for Life,” according to the lawsuit.
The guard told her: “You have to take your shirt off. Your shirt will incite others,” and “would cause a disturbance. You’re disturbing the peace,” the suit says.
Lassiter, who complied, said she later saw two other Archives visitors wearing what appeared to be messages supporting abortion rights, one of which said, “My Body, My Choice,” and “Pro-Choice,” according to the suit.
The other plaintiff, Kallal, said she and her granddaughter likewise were told to cover up their t-shirts, one of which said “MARCH 4 LIFE 2014: Saint Cecilia’s Youth Group, Glen Carbon, IL,” the other which said, “Pro-life generation.”
One guard told them, “Your clothing is offensive. You must zip up your coats or take off your shirts,” the suit said.
Kallal later saw other students leaving the building after being told to cover their pro-life message clothing, saying “they would rather leave than give up their right to free speech,” according to the lawsuit.
NARA, in its statement Friday, said “early indications are that our security officers quickly corrected their actions and, from that point forward, all visitors were permitted to enter our facility without needing to remove or cover their attire.”
NARA said it has reminded all of its security staff at locations nationwide “of the rights of visitors in this regard.”