Doctor Protestors

Paula Durnian hoses off anti-abortion messages written in chalk on the street in Newport Beach. Twice in the past week, pro-life protestors allegedly left messages targeting Durnian's neighbor, Dr. Richard Agnew, an OBGYN. (Gabrielle Durnian / Daily Pilot / July 2, 2014)

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A group of anti-abortion protesters returned to a Newport Beach neighborhood twice this week, prompting complaints from residents that police aren't doing enough to shield them from the demonstrations.

Neighbors along Antigua Way in the Dover Shores area said dozens of boys and girls, who appeared to be in their teens, arrived in the neighborhood Sunday afternoon and Tuesday night.

The group moved from house to house, shouting and carrying signs while others scrawled in chalk on the sidewalk and street.

They wrote messages like "abortion is murder" and "your neighbor is a monster," referring to Dr. Richard Agnew, a Hoag Hospital-affiliated obstetrician who lives in the area.

It was the second and third time the Riverside-based group, Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust, picketed Agnew's neighborhood in the span of about a year.

The demonstrations have vexed neighbors and even prompted the Newport Beach City Council to pass an ordinance restricting residential picketing.

"On a scale of 1 to 10, we're all at 20, that's how frustrated we are," said Paula Durnian, who lives down the street from Agnew.

In June last year, the anti-abortion group picketed Agnew's home because he signed a letter written by Hoag-affiliated doctors objecting to the hospital's decision to ban elective abortions.

Two months later, the council passed an ordinance that bars protesters from picketing within 300 feet of a home.

The law was intended to keep targets of protests from being captive in their own homes while still allowing free speech, according to a staff report.

This week, Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust tested that ordinance.

"We were testing it, and Newport Beach acted very professionally," said the group's founder, Jeff White. "Actually, I was stunned how well the police handled a very volatile situation."

Although they can be loud and intimidating, White's group is well-versed in what is technically legal or illegal in Newport, said police Deputy Chief David McGill.

"They're not violent," he said. "They know the limits. They skirt the limits of the law."

But Tuesday's protest did included a violent confrontation, according to White and Durnian. Both have accused the other party of assault and asked for a citizen's arrest.

They both received court dates to settle the accusations.

Newport Beach police believe the protesters may have also crossed a legal line by using sidewalk chalk.

Under California law, defacing property, even with a temporary substance, can be a crime, McGill said.

"In my opinion, and in the opinion of the agency here, yeah that can be vandalism," McGill said. The problem is the department's officers need to see the suspects in the act.

Durnian said she's gathering evidence from photos and a neighbor's security cameras so police can submit a case to the Orange County district attorney's office.

"I believe in freedom of speech," Durnian said. "What I don't agree with is the vandalism, the graffiti, the hateful verbiage."

White said the city of Newport Beach should avoid being pulled into a legal battle about the constitutionality of the vandalism law just because neighbors don't like his group's protests.

"Free speech is supposed to be designed to protect the person whose speech is hated by everyone else," he said.

Farrah Emami, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office, said she has no idea if the county has ever pursued vandalism charges involving sidewalk chalk, but, "As with all cases we will review any information that is submitted to us."

Agnew's family said Wednesday that they too are fed up with the demonstrations.

The doctor's son, Richard Agnew II, called the picketing surreal.

"These people have no idea what my dad does," he said.

The vast majority of the abortions Agnew performs are on fetuses with severe health problems, according to his son, and those abortions are also only a small part of his practice.

"He's delivered half the babies in this town," Durnian said.