PORTLAND, Maine — Planned Parenthood officials and supporters are advocating for what they hope will become a “patient safety zone” around the organization’s downtown Portland office after months of regular anti-abortion protests nearby.
At Tuesday night’s meeting of the City Council’s Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee, panel members discussed a potential 35-foot buffer zone that would push protests farther from the entryway of the Congress Street Planned Parenthood.
Dozens of attendees packed the meeting at City Hall wearing pink in support of Planned Parenthood, while another group filed in wearing yellow T-shirts that read “GRR! Grandmothers for Reproductive Rights.”
Others carried pink signs reading “Protect Me — move forward with a Patient Safety Zone.”
The committee is comprised of four city councilors — panel chairman Ed Suslovic, vice chairman Cheryl Leeman, John Coyne and Jill Duson. Tuesday’s panel discussion was held in a workshop setting, which included no public comment despite the heavy turnout and featured no official votes on the issue.
Portland neighborhood prosecutor Trish McAllister, a lawyer who works closely with the police department, told the committee that of 161 Planned Parenthood clients who responded to an organization questionnaire, 150 said they were made “uncomfortable” by the anti-abortion protests outside the facility.
McAllister said she personally fielded multiple complaints from organization leaders, as well as questions from police on duty who were unsure what to do in response to those complaints.
“Officers started coming to me and asking me about that fine line between peoples’ right to protest and the rights of people trying to enter the facility,” McAllister told the committee.
She also said that the department chief, Michael Sauschuck, distributed a letter to protesters in January warning of the type of activity that would cross the line between constitutionally protected free speech and illegal actions, such as “disorderly conduct, harassment, obstruction of a public way, as well as a fairly obscure state provision prohibiting any noise from a protest from being [loud enough to be] heard inside a facility where medical services are being offered.”
“We have had a lot of complaints about intimidation and harassment,” Sauschuck told the committee Tuesday. “We had no complaints that rose to a criminal level.”
The chief said on many occasions, the protesters were confrontational with clinic patients or those passing by, and police faced difficult decisions on whether or not to press charges.
Sauschuck said one demonstrator scolded a patient by saying, “We will wrap your legs in barbed wire, and you will burn in hellfire.”
“From a legal perspective, if it was ‘Mike, I’m going to come to your house and put gasoline on you and burn you alive,’ [it could have been considered a criminal threat],” he said.
The weekly anti-abortion protests, which began last fall, triggered a counter-protest last winter organized by area businessman Mike Fink, and the early January protest duel over abortion rights attracted widespread media attention.
Fink has long called for the establishment of a 35-foot buffer zone to keep protesters away from the immediate paths of Planned Parenthood patients, and blamed the regular demonstrations for driving away foot traffic to his nearby restaurant, which he announced plans to close this summer as a result of the protests.
The nonprofit Planned Parenthood has been a target of anti-abortion activists nationwide because of the organization’s advocacy for reproductive rights. Some congressional conservatives have similarly fought to eliminate federal funding for the organization over the years because of it provides information about, and in some cases, performs abortions.
Discussion of restricting where on public sidewalks protesters can set up could ignite another First Amendment debate in Maine’s largest city, where a recently passed ordinance preventing individuals from standing and holding signs in median strips was criticized as unconstitutional by opponents.
Last year, during the Occupy movement, demonstrators claimed the city infringed on their First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly by asking them to take down their Lincoln Park encampment.
McAllister told the committee Tuesday that similar buffer zones to the one being discussed in Portland have been upheld against challenges three times by the U.S. Supreme Court, although the attorney noted that another legal challenge of a Massachusetts state statute on the issue is still pending.
“I’m worried that we’re so focused on the First Amendment rights of the protesters, that we’re not really considering the rights of people seeking health care services,” Leeman said.
Duson echoed the concerns of other committee members, who said they wanted to balance the constitutional rights of the protesters as well as the civil rights of the Planned Parenthood patients.
“To push them so far away from the activity that they’re protesting seems like an unfair division,” Duson said. “At the same time, if I’m going to come into the city to the clinic, I shouldn’t have to feel like I have to run a gauntlet to get to my doctor or nurse.”