This week’s hearings, part 2: buffer zone repeal

“The cloud of litigation has been cleared,” according to Senator Donna Soucy, in a letter from her to the New Hampshire House Judiciary Committee. Rep. Karen Ebel read the senator’s letter into the record during a February 1  hearing on repeal of the buffer zone law, of which Soucy was the prime sponsor in 2014.

The litigation of which Soucy wrote is Reddy v. Foster. She considers it “cleared” because of the recent First Circuit Court of Appeals affirmation that challenges to the buffer zone law are premature since the law has not yet been enforced.

No pro-life witnesses standing or walking peacefully outside an abortion facility in New Hampshire have been arrested or cited under the buffer zone law, and that clears the way to enforcing the law. Got that?

“We will begin to work with police and law enforcement”

Senator Soucy’s letter was in opposition to HB 589, the third repeal attempt to be introduced since the law was signed. The testimony on both sides was familiar to anyone who has attended hearings on the earlier repeal efforts. One thing was new: the hints from Senator Soucy and Planned Parenthood Action Fund lobbyist Kayla Montgomery that the zones are on the way – since, after all, “the cloud of litigation has been cleared.”

In response to Rep. Claire Rouillard’s question about whether zones had been posted outside any abortion facilities yet, Montgomery replied, “We will begin to work with police and law enforcement to see what’s best for each community.”

That’s a grim hoot. Regardless of anything police might say, neither they or any other municipal or state authority can prevent an abortion facility manager from posting a buffer zone, within which First Amendment rights on public property are abrogated. The law delegates that right to the abortion facility.

When the buffer zone law was still a bill and got its executive session in front of this Judiciary committee, then-Rep. Robert Rowe suggested to his colleagues that the bill include a provision for, at a minimum, some kind of public hearing before a zone could go up. His colleagues rejected the idea so firmly that Rowe didn’t even bring forward a formal motion. “Too much local control,” said one Judiciary member who has since left the House.  “Don’t give a local board the power to override state statute,” said Rep. Timothy Horrigan at the time; he is still on Judiciary.

So go ahead, law enforcement officials, and let yourself be worked with. Just please don’t kid yourself that you play a substantive role in the creation of the zones you’ll be called upon to enforce.

PP greeter describes frightening incident; were police called?

At this week’s hearing, a volunteer greeter from Planned Parenthood in Manchester testified against repeal. She made it clear she was testifying for herself, not for PPNNE. She described an unsettling incident where she witnessed a client surrounded and blocked by what she called pro-life protesters, temporarily preventing the client from entering the building. Scary, no doubt – at least that’s how I’d feel in such a situation. I’d call the cops.

Was that done in the situation described by the greeter? She had witnessed a blockade – a citable offense, however brief – and she was concerned for the patients’ safety. She must have known that PP’s Manchester office has cameras trained on the sidewalk, possibly capturing the incident and making prosecution easier. So were the police called?

She didn’t say.

Massachusetts abortion providers learned the hard way what happens when buffer zone laws are imposed before existing laws against harassment, disorderly conduct, or criminal threatening are enforced.

I am sure that the greeter who testified wasn’t making up the story. As I listened to her, though, it occurred to me that in some contexts, where a person is being threatened with harm, someone who sees that and fails to report it to authorities is subject to prosecution. This is certainly the case where children and vulnerable elders are concerned. Healthy, unimpaired adults don’t get the same protection, since the law assumes such adults can call for help themselves.

I am left wondering why any New Hampshire health care provider, or an agent of that provider, who believes clients are being threatened does not call police to deal with the threat.

Video, and the fear of it

The PP greeter said she recently saw someone she identified as a pro-lifer on the sidewalk wearing a webcam. That scared her. She’s worried about privacy. She doesn’t want herself or PP’s clients or employees being shown on someone else’s social media.

I understand her concern. There are two ways of looking at video, though. She saw the webcam as a threat, something offensive. There were other cameras present she didn’t talk about, mounted on the PP building in Manchester. Did she see those as a threat to privacy? Not likely. She probably considers them a defensive measure.

Rep. Kathy Souza reminded the committee at the hearing that Manchester’s PP has those sidewalk cameras, and video of sidewalk activity is available to legislators and law enforcement officials.

Have the committee members seen any such videos? Will they seek them out or consider them relevant? We don’t know.

Since the passage of the buffer zone law, I’ve participated in 40 Days for Life campaigns at various locations. I never come to a vigil without a camera of some kind, usually the one on my phone. I have it as a defensive measure. I often keep vigil alone during 40DFL (which is a terrible idea, but that’s one consequence of taking the 7 a.m. shift). If there is any incident on the public sidewalk that threatens me or appears to be threatening anyone else, I am going to do two things: call 911, and use the camera to document whatever I can.  A commitment to nonviolence doesn’t equate to a commitment to leave my phone and its camera at home.

To me, that’s playing defense. To any person whose actions I might document, it would look like offense.

Was defense the reason why the man spotted by the greeter was wearing a webcam? I don’t know, and neither does she.  If he were to be a person whose camera was meant as a tool of intimidation and invasion of privacy, no buffer zone law would deter him. He’d just step out of the zone (“up to” 25 feet away, per the law) and invest in a zoom lens, and keep right on filming – until someone calls the police to enforce existing laws against harassment and threatening.

Which brings us back to buffer zone repeal. The purported need for a New Hampshire buffer zone law was and is unsupported by any law enforcement records from recent years. Peaceful pro-life witnesses have not drawn attention from law enforcement – and anyone determined to commit violence is not going to be deterred by the presence or absence of a few signs.

That’s just as sobering a thought for the people on the sidewalks as it is for the people using the “buffered” facilities.

What would genuine concern for safety look like?

Can the state of New Hampshire delegate to private entities the right to control First Amendment activities on public sidewalks and rights-of-way?

The buffer zone law does not require those private entities – the abortion providers – to prove any danger or threat before posting a zone. Providers could post one simply because they don’t like the presence of silent pro-life demonstrators or peaceful sidewalk counselors.

That’s how we know that the buffer zone law is not about protecting anyone’s safety.

An abortion provider concerned about patient safety would call law enforcement without hesitation, with or without a buffer zone in place, anytime a patient expressed fear about sidewalk activity. (Such a provider would also welcome more scrutiny from public health officials, but that’s another story.) That hasn’t been happening.

The sponsors of this year’s buffer zone repeal bill know this. They are doing their best to make the case that protecting people in and around abortion facilities is going to mean enforcing laws that were in place long before Senator Soucy started buffering things.

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