Unfazed by lawsuit threat, Portland city councilor expects unanimous approval of protest buffer zone for abortion clinic
PORTLAND, Maine — A proposed “buffer zone” banning protesters near a Planned Parenthood clinic that performs abortions is a step closer to being approved, after a City Council committee last week recommended it to the full council.
The Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee voted 4-0 on Oct. 8 to refer the proposed ordinance for adoption. The council is expected to take it up at a Nov. 18 meeting.
Councilor Ed Suslovic, who chairs the committee, said in an interview last week that he expects the ordinance to be unanimously approved by the council.
More than 40 people spoke at the committee meeting in support of the ban, which prohibits protests within 39 feet of the clinic at 443 Congress St. No one spoke in opposition.
For more than a year, as many as 20 demonstrators have stood outside the clinic doors each Friday morning, carrying graphic signs, praying and sometimes harassing and intimidating patients who enter the clinic.
The situation prompted the committee to look at the buffer zone as a way of protecting patients’ safety and ability to obtain reproductive health services.
But Pro-Life Mission of Maine, the group that has led the protests, has already threatened to sue the city if the buffer zone is enacted. The group claims the ban violates First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly.
Suslovic said the city is ready for the challenge. He feels the ordinance imposes the “absolute bare minimum” restriction on the protesters in order to protect public safety.
“We have already laid the groundwork for a rock-solid defense because we’ve been thoughtful and deliberative, we haven’t rushed into anything, and because everything in that ordinance has been carefully discussed and debated,” he said.
The zone includes the sidewalk on east side of Elm Street as far as the public parking garage. On Congress Street, the zone stretches along the northern sidewalk about as far as Guitar Grave, the pawnshop owned by Mike Fink, who staged several counter-protests last winter.
Protesters would be allowed on the opposite sidewalks along both streets.
“Clearly, this is not an arbitrary ordinance. We took very careful measurements. … We just want to protect patients, staff and volunteers who are going in and out of the building,” Suslovic said.