By now, you have probably heard of Brian Sims, a Democratic state representative serving Pennsylvania’s 182nd district. His attempts to shame pro-lifers protesting at abortion clinics have mostly backfired, but the situation is illuminating for what it demonstrates about how social media can change a person—and how that has poisoned our politics.
On May 2, Sims shared a video he recorded of himself engaging with a protesting woman in front of a Planned Parenthood outside Philadelphia.
Sims berates the woman throughout the nearly 9-minute video:
- “She is an old white lady, who is going to try to avoid showing you her face.”
- “How many children have you clothed today? … How many children have you put shoes on their feet today? Have you fed any children today, or have you just stood out in front of a Planned Parenthood shaming people for something they have a constitutional right to do? If you’re here about the children, you can pray at home for children. … But you’re not, instead you’re out here shaming people for something that they have a constitutional right to do?
- “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, what you’re doing here is disgusting. It’s an attack on common sense, it’s an attack on the Constitution, it’s an attack on the rights of every single person coming here. And don’t convince yourself that what you’re doing isn’t extremely racist. How dare you? This is grotesque.”
The video does not show the woman approaching anyone entering or leaving the building. She doesn’t even speak until more than four minutes in, when she asks Sims to stop recording her. As Sims tells her “Christian faith believes in shaming people,” the woman tells him, “Get out of my face, get your camera out of my face.”
Sims’ response is telling: “You have a problem protesting in public? Don’t protest in public. If you know who this woman is and you can give me her address, we’ll protest out in front of her home. Let’s go protest out in front of her house and tell her what’s right for her body.”
He also goes on to say, “This Planned Parenthood has done more for civil rights in America than this person will ever do for anyone’s rights.”
Sims later turns his attention to her faith, asking, “How many Catholic churches are you protesting after 400 priests in Pennsylvania indicted for child molestation. I don’t remember seeing you at any of those protests, I was at them … The amount of mental gymnastics it must take to think that you have a right to tell a woman what’s right for her body, and yet you will support a faith that has molested children across the planet? Shame on you. This is what broken morality looks like. This is what broken values looks like.”
It’s worth reiterating Sims filmed this video himself—a video in which he harasses a constituent, attempts to obtain her home address, and encourages others to join him in harassing her—and willingly shared it.
And it turns out this wasn’t the lawmaker’s first interaction with Planned Parenthood protesters or attempting to dox constituents to open them up for harassment.
He had previously shared a video on April 18 in which, according to the Philadelphia Daily News, “Sims approaches a woman and three girls who appear to be in their teens outside the Planned Parenthood clinic at 12th and Locust Streets and refers to them as ‘pseudo-Christian protesters who’ve been out here shaming young girls for being here.’
‘I’ve got $100 to anyone who will identify any of these three,’ Sims says in the video, adding that he is raising money for Planned Parenthood.”
After backlash, yesterday he tweeted a 2-minute video that appeared to be intended as an apology: “I will fiercely protect a woman’s right to make the best choices for her health & her body, unimpeded. I also know that two wrongs don’t make a right, especially on the front lines of a civil rights battle. I can do better, and I will do better, for the women of Pennsylvania.”
Yet the words “I’m sorry” never appeared anywhere in his video or tweet. And nowhere does he show or state that the protesters he targeted engaged in the “hate, vitriol, hostility and BLATANT RACISM” he claims he’s seen from Planned Parenthood protesters.
In identifying himself as a state representative in the videos that he posted (albeit on his personal accounts), Sims attempted to use his position as an elected official, and the significant platform that comes with it, to try to intimidate his own constituents from exercising their First Amendment rights.
It’s also concerning to observe how much a person can change over just a few years.
Pro-life lawyer Christine Flowers interviewed Sims in 2013 for the Philadelphia Daily News and wrote “liberal Sims has this conservative’s respect.” After these videos came to light, Flowers wrote a new column this week:
“[This behavior] runs counter to my past experience with Sims.”
“Shortly after Sims won his election in 2012, I interviewed him for an article in the Daily News. I came away impressed with his interest in bipartisanship. At the time, I wrote that we disagreed on many issues but that, ‘Sims is one of the more principled and collaborative public servants I’ve encountered in my half-century on earth, most of it spent in this beloved cesspool known as Philadelphia.’ I also noted: ‘As Sims once put it, he’s trying to find empathy for people who disagree with him.’”
“In that interview, Sims told me that ‘The idea of not even changing a mind, but being able to work with a mind that is unchanging or work with a mind that is opposed to yours, you need to understand it. It sounds very elementary, and it’s something that we talk a lot about around here, the idea that nothing should be revolutionary about the idea that you have to understand the people that you work with. But somehow that seems revolutionary of late in this sort of modern discussion of American politics.’”
Compare the man in these videos and tweets to the man from that 2013 story. Someone who once appeared to be a serious and thoughtful politician has become one who harasses and doxes constituents, then digs in belligerently on social media.
It’s not difficult to imagine the thought process that emboldened Sims: He thought he’d be praised by pro-choicers for taking on “the enemy” and was undoubtedly thinking of the digital currency he’d rack up.
That the allure of retweets and social media plaudits could cloud his judgment so much is dangerous. It’s further evidence politicians would largely be better off staying away from social media as much as possible; at the very least, they should have a level-headed and sober social media team. There is little benefit for our country when our politicians act solely to receive accolades from their own side while “owning” the other. It’s a little pathetic that politicians are unwilling to engage productively with those who disagree with them. And it’s dangerous when a lawmaker’s contempt for voices who disagree with him allow him to think it’s appropriate to intimidate or silence those voices. It’s an abuse of power and should not be tolerated.
In Sims’ case, it’s not just an abuse of power; he was explicitly on the wrong side of a Supreme Court decision. In 2014, the court in McCullen v. Coakley unanimously ruled that a Massachusetts law that created a “buffer zone” to prevent people from protesting within 35 feet of an abortion facility violated the First Amendment.
Pennsylvania Republican Party chairman Val DiGiorgio released a statement in which he rightly condemned Sims’ attempt to interfere with his constituents’ peaceful prayer and protest:
“State Rep. Brian Sims’ harassment of a woman’s peaceful and religious exercise of her First Amendment rights is yet another example of a troubling trend of growing extremism and hypocrisy among Democrats. People are entitled to exercise their First Amendment rights and should be free from intimidation and harassment, even when their views makes left-wing Democrats like Rep. Sims uncomfortable.”
Even Sims acknowledged the truth of DiGiorgio’s statement at the time of the May 2 video, when he told the woman, “You’re allowed to be out here.” Unfortunately, he was so convinced that he was right that he kept going, telling her, “That doesn’t mean you have a moral right to be out here.”
It’s particularly disappointing that many Democrats and members of the media appear to be tolerating such behavior by looking the other way. Sims’ behavior should be roundly denounced: He bullied his own constituents; he ridiculed their age, race, and faith; and he tried to intimidate them from exercising their free speech rights. He should stay off social media, and we should hope other politicians follow suit.