According to the Twitter feed of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England (@ppnne), the Portland City Council voted unanimously this evening to impose what PP calls a “patient safety zone” outside abortion facilities.
Also known as buffer zones, such ordinances typically impose a perimeter around abortion facilities to keep peaceful pro-life prayer witnesses at a distance.
The sketchy report provided by the tweets indicates that abortion advocates were well-represented at the meeting, which included public testimony. The Council meeting was scheduled to begin at 7 p.m.; testimony reportedly ended shortly after 10; the Council vote was concluded by 10:25.
The Councilors added an “emergency” provision that makes the ordinance effective immediately.
The United States Supreme Court will rule within the next few months on the constitutionality of Massachusetts’s buffer zone law. The Concord, New Hampshire city council recently took a wait-and-see attitude to a petition for a zone around “reproductive health facilities” in that city.
The U.S. Supreme Court is back in session, and among the cases it will decide by next summer is one from Massachusetts challenging that state’s 35-foot no-protest zone around abortion facilities [McCullen v. Coakley]. The plaintiffs are seven pro-lifers who regularly do sidewalk counseling outside abortion facilities in Boston, Worcester, and Springfield.
The pending case was a factor in the decision by the Concord, NH City Council not to follow up on a petition to impose a 35-foot zone around the Feminist Health Center. When that petition was in the news, I went to Concord to measure what a 35-foot zone would look like there (see Thirty-Five Feet in Theory and Practice). I still wonder if the Concord Chamber of Commerce realizes that a 35-foot “buffer” would put pro-lifers on its doorstep instead of the FHC’s. If the Supreme Court upholds the Massachusetts law, you can expect to see a buffer zone imposed by the city, if not by the state.
The challenged law applies to “reproductive health facilities” excluding hospitals. Violators are subject to fines and jail time, becoming more severe with repeat offenses. Mark L. Rienzi, attorney for the plaintiffs, told Boston.com, “The same rules have to apply to all speakers. The government cannot put peaceful pro-life speakers in jail, but give Planned Parenthood free rein on the same sidewalk.” It seems that employees of the abortion providers, who are not subject to the law, have been known to stand in front of the facilities and interact with clients in a manner to drown out the pro-lifers 35 feet away.
I saw a tweet the other day from Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, calling on supporters to show up in Portland to promote a “patient safety zone” there. That’s yet another euphemism for “First-Amendment-free zone.”
The Court last addressed no-protest zones in 2000 in the Hill v. Colorado case, when a 6-3 vote upheld a Colorado law establishing an 8-foot buffer. Five of those Justices are still on the Court, two of whom were in the Hill majority.
Late-term abortion case on appeal
In other Supreme Court news, Americans United for Life is reporting that Arizona officials are appealing a lower court decision striking down the state’s law limiting abortions after the fifth month of pregnancy. According to AUL, “Arizona’s defense relies directly on the Supreme Court’s 2007 decision in Gonzales v. Carhart, which upheld the federal partial birth abortion ban act. In that case, the Supreme Court expressed concern with late-term abortions and their impact on the unborn child and women’s health.”
The Court agreed to hear in its next session a case involving a Massachusetts buffer zone. In McCullen v. Coakley, pro-life advocates of free speech are challenging a ruling earlier this year by the First Circuit Court of Appeals upholding a 35-foot zone around Massachusetts abortion facilities. The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case this fall.
Will Concord officials want to pursue a measure similar to one pending Supreme Court review? We’ll find out July 8 when the City Council has its next meeting. I plan to be there. [note, added 7/3/13: the agenda for the July meeting does not include the “buffer zone” petition.]
As The Susan B. Anthony List posted on its site in response to the Court’s announcement, “We shall see whether the Court agrees that free speech includes sidewalk counseling.”
What would a First-Amendment-blackout zone look like around the Feminist Health Center in Concord? There’s a petition circulating in town to bar protesters, including those in silent prayer, from getting within 35 feet of .. of what? The doors of “reproductive health centers”? Their clients? Their property lines? Perhaps that’ll be cleared up when the City Council hears the petition.
Today, I took a few pictures outside the FHC to get an idea of where a prayer witness would have to go to be more than 35 feet away from FHC property. The first thing I noticed was that there is currently no sidewalk across the street, because of construction on a Main Street building.
With that construction underway and that section of sidewalk currently closed, the nearest open sidewalk across the street from the FHC is in front of the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce office. I wonder if the Chamber knows that.
The FHC is on the northwest corner of Main & Thompson streets in Concord, with a sidewalk on two sides of the building. The frontage on Main is 26 of my steps long, which by a very sketchy measurement is about 57 feet wide. The property line on Thompson Street is longer: 80 steps, or about 175 feet, from Main Street to the fence at the back of the parking lot. I’m sure an assessor’s map from the City of Concord would be more accurate than my pace-by-pace estimate.
Thirty-five feet from that back parking lot, measured along the north side of Thompson Street, would put protesters onto a neighboring driveway. As a practical matter, a 35-foot “buffer” in that direction would put protesters on State Street.
The sidewalk on the other side of Thompson Street would be off-limits. The street is only 10 of my paces wide, or about 21 feet. (At January’s March for Life, walkers were able to use that sidewalk, under the watchful eyes of Concord police and FHC supporters, without incident.)
What about the sidewalk directly in front of the FHC? Today, two pro-lifers were praying quietly, careful to block neither the sidewalk nor the walkway to the FHC’s front door.
To remain on that side of the street, a thirty-five foot zone would force these peaceful protesters either north, putting them in front of a New Hampshire Employment Security office, or south, putting them in front of what appears to be a small apartment building. Here’s the view from the Employment Security office:
An aerial view of the block, with a 35-foot speech-blackout zone superimposed, wouldn’t convey the whole story of what a “buffer” would look like, especially with the ongoing construction across from the Feminist Health Center. Photographs and aerial views also can’t address the underlying question of why there’s an attempt in Concord to interfere with the First Amendment rights of peaceful protesters.
Update: New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan signed a statewide buffer-zone bill into law on June 10, 2014.
Jennifer Frizzell, senior policy advisor for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, acknowledged in a radio interview this morning that PPNNE is looking into what she calls a “patient safety zone” or “buffer” outside PPNNE’s New Hampshire facilities. She referred specifically to the Manchester office, which she said had seen “increasing amounts of activity, targeting and intimidating clients.” She added, “we’re just having preliminary conversations” about potential city ordinances and state legislation.
Frizzell was a guest on New Hampshire Public Radio’s The Exchange, hosted by Laura Knoy. Ashley Pratte, executive director of Cornerstone Policy Research, joined Frizzell and Knoy to discuss “The Shifting Landscape of Abortion Law.” (Program audio here.)
“There was a relatively significant case recently out of Massachusetts where a 35-foot buffer zone to protect patients entering and exiting clinics was upheld through [an] appellate court,” said Frizzell, adding that the court found “appropriate balance of free speech rights of protesters and the need for patients to have safe access, uninterrupted, to get into and out of health care facilities.” PPNNE’s Burlington, Vermont facility has a 35-foot buffer zone as well. Such zones normally prohibit standing, marching, praying, or protesting within a specified distance of an abortion facility.
Manchester’s Planned Parenthood office on Pennacook Street was recently the site of a 40 Days for Life prayer vigil, with up to 150 people at a time praying outside the facility during the campaign that ended on Palm Sunday. Smaller groups of people continue to pray outside the building, placing particular emphasis on Thursdays, when surgical abortions are reportedly performed at the facility (see prayforlifecenter.org).
Rep. Jane Cormier (R-Alton) sponsored an informed consent bill in the New Hampshire House this year. I asked her this afternoon to comment on Frizzell’s remarks, and she quickly asked, “Violation of free speech?” I took her question to a New Hampshire attorney with experience in First Amendment cases. His response was unequivocal: “This [would be] an unconstitutional infringement on freedom of speech and assembly.” He noted that New Hampshire has “lots of great cases” relative to protesters’ First Amendment rights, stemming from the arrests of members of the Clamshell Alliance who protested the construction of the Seabrook nuclear power plant in the 1970s and 1980s.
Catherine Kelley, who prays outside PP’s Manchester office and is one of the organizers of the Pray for Life Center, was equally blunt this afternoon. “We are absolutely opposed to any type of buffer or bubble zone. ‘Live Free or Die’ means we should be free to speak for and about life anywhere and anytime. I knew this was coming when PP got it passed in Vermont.”
Frizzell did not specify with whom these “conversations” about buffer zones are being held. Most buffer zones are enacted through municipal ordinance.