Pennsylvania State Representative Brian Sims (D-Phila.) has embroiled himself in a controversy that’s generated national news. Sims, a staunch abortion rights advocate, confronted a woman standing on the sidewalk in front of a Planned Parenthood abortion facility in Philadelphia. She was there to pray for the unborn children and offer support and information on abortion alternatives to women visiting the clinic.
Sims was there to confront her. During the encounter, which Sims livestreamed, he harangued, taunted and shamed the woman. The only time the woman speaks in the video is when she asks Sims to get out of her way and his camera out of her face. Sims, an attorney, also lectured the woman on the law. He said, “The same laws that protect me, protect you…” Really? The laws do protect the woman’s conduct, but do they protect Sims’?
The crime of “harassment” occurs when a person, with the intent to harass, annoy or alarm another, among other proscribed conduct, follows the other person in or about a public place. This section of the harassment statute is a summary offense and carries a maximum fine of $300 and 90 days in prison. Did Sims commit the crime of harassment? To answer, we must first ask whether he followed this woman in or about a public place.
Sims’ own video shows him following her as she walks back and forth on the public sidewalk trying to get away from him. Several times she stops and turns away as he blocks her path. It’s clear that Sims followed this woman in a public place. But did he also intend to harass, annoy or alarm her? He’s telling her on camera that his purpose in confronting her is to shame her publicly. In my opinion that evidences at least an intent to annoy.
Sims will argue his conduct is protected by his First Amendment right to free speech. There is a section of the harassment statute that states, “This section shall not apply to constitutionally protected activity.” However, Sims may not be able to avail himself of that defense. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has held that the harassment statute is not directed at the content of the speech; it’s directed at the conduct. So, if a judge concludes that Sims’ conduct constitutes harassment, he would be convicted.
What about the crime of ethnic intimidation? If Sims harassed this woman, with malicious intent toward her race, color or religion, then he’s committed the crime of ethnic intimidation – Pennsylvania’s hate crime. “Malicious intention” means the intent to commit a certain crime, including harassment, motivated by hatred toward a person’s race, color or religion among other factors. Racial or religious animus must be a motivator but need not be the sole motivator of the crime. This offense is a misdemeanor of the third degree with a maximum fine of $2,500 and one year in prison.
Here are some snippets of what Sims said, “An old white lady telling people what to do with their bodies? Shame on you … This is disgusting. This is shameful … If you’re a white person like I am, we have a lot of catching up to do, we have a lot to apologize for, and I’m going to start by apologizing for this woman. Shame on you…Don’t convince yourself that what you’re doing isn’t extremely racist…We can talk about how your Christian faith believes in shaming people…There is nothing Christian about what you’re doing…This is racist act of judgment…This isn’t Christianity.”
And, here’s the comment he wrote on the video he posted of his confrontation, “Push back against Planned Parenthood protestors, PLEASE! They prey on young women, they use white privilege, & shame. They’re racist, classist, bigots who NEED & DESERVE our righteous opposition.” Sims is clearly shaming this woman because she’s white and Christian; he even told her he’s apologizing to the public for her whiteness. In my opinion his conduct was motivated in part by racial and religious animus. If so, that constitutes the crime of ethnic intimidation.
Will Sims be charged? It’s been reported the Philadelphia district attorney is reviewing the matter. However, Sims pushes all the right buttons. He’s a liberal, Democrat adored by the media as one of the first openly gay members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly; he’s a champion of Planned Parenthood, and ironically, an anti-bullying advocate. The mayor, whom Sims supports, and the district attorney are both Democrats. Thus, there will likely be no charges. And, Brian Sims will become Pennsylvania’s Jussie Smollet.
What if Sims had been a MAGA-hat wearing Christian taunting and berating a black, Muslim woman wearing a pink hat and advocating for Planned Parenthood? Rest assured they’d pull Old Sparky out of mothballs and make those lights blink at the State Correctional Institute once again.