Hospital Trying to Censor Parent's Sidewalk Protest, ACLU Charges

November 15, 1999 12:00 am

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PITTSBURGH — In a classic right-to-protest case, the American Civil Liberties Union is defending the father of a critically injured child who has been sued by a local hospital to stop him from picketing to warn other parents of potential dangers.

At a court hearing this afternoon, the ACLU will ask the Honorable Judith Friedman to lift an injunction barring any further picketing by the father, David Finnell.

Finnell decided to protest because, in his words, “I want the nurses to be more careful so that no other parent has to live through what we did.” His sign reads: “Warning: Before You Take Your Child to This Hospital, Stop and Ask Me About Ours.”

Attorneys for the Ohio Valley General Hospital obtained the injunction last Thursday in a proceeding that the Finnells could not attend. The order requires Finnell to stand 25 feet away from the hospital’s driveway.

Finnell began his protest in November of this year after his four-year-old son Dalton went into the hospital in September 1998 for routine surgery and emerged in a coma. The Finnell family filed a malpractice suit against the hospital and the surgeon, alleging that an improper dose of saline resulted in the injuries to their son. That case is now pending before the courts.

When Finnell began picketing, the hospital called the police, but the police refused to order Finnell to move or stop the protest because, they said, he was on public property and was not causing a disturbance. Finnell continued the protest for several more days.

Vic Walczak, Director of the Pittsburgh Chapter of the ACLU, said he agreed to represent the Finnells because the case involves important free speech principles.

“Corporate America has no more right to silence critics who protest on public property than the government does,” he said. “Mr. Finnell’s statement may be unpleasant for the hospital, but their remedy is not to ask a court for censorship, but to use their own speech to answer the criticism.”

In September of 1998, David and Tracy Finnell’s four year-old boy, Dalton, went in for tonsil and adenoid surgery at Ohio Valley General Hospital. After the surgery, the hospital refused the parents’ repeated requests to keep Dalton overnight because he was sluggish and vomiting blood. Twenty minutes after arriving home, Dalton had a seizure and stopped breathing. After being resuscitated by his father, Dalton went into a coma. At Children’s Hospital, he seized and had to be resuscitated again, emerging from a coma after two days.

The case is Ohio Valley General Hospital v. Finnell.

The hearing takes place today at 1:45 p.m. before Judge Judith Friedman, in Courtroom 12, 7th floor of the City-County Building in downtown Pittsburgh.

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