Proposed abortion clinic buffer zone could trigger third free speech lawsuit against Portland in less than two years
PORTLAND, Maine — The Portland City Council on Monday night will decide whether to impose a 39-foot buffer zone around the entrances of city abortion clinics — specifically, the Congress Street Planned Parenthood office, which is the only such clinic currently in operation.
The move could set the stage for another First Amendment legal battle for the city, which has been hit with lawsuits alleging free speech infringements at least twice in the last two years.
Members of the Occupy Maine encampment in Lincoln Park argued the city was trampling on their constitutional rights when it asked them to remove their tents and demonstrations from the public park early last year. The demonstrators ultimately dropped their case after a judge ruled in the city’s favor.
In another case, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine is currently representing three residents who allege that the city’s new ordinance preventing people from standing in median strips takes away their First Amendment right to express themselves with signs in those locations. That case is scheduled to play out in a one-day trial on Tuesday.
If the council votes to approve the Planned Parenthood buffer zone, anti-abortion protesters who gather weekly outside the organization offices have reportedly vowed to challenge the measure in court.
Portland neighborhood prosecutor Trish McAllister, a staff attorney who focuses on civil complaints and works closely with the police department, told a council committee in July that similar buffer zones to the one being discussed in Portland have been upheld against challenges three times by the U.S. Supreme Court.
McAllister 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.
“The proposed safety zone protects the privacy and safety of patients and staff, while also preserving the rights of individual freedom of speech,” Eric Covey, organizer for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, said in a Friday statement. “Regardless of the type of care people are seeking, all citizens have a right to a comfortable, quiet, and calm environment free of harassment and intimidation when seeking medical care.”
McAllister said that Portland Police 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.”
The chief has said on many occasions that protesters were confrontational with clinic patients or those passing by, and police faced difficult decisions on whether or not to press charges.
Sauschuck told the committee that one demonstrator scolded a patient by saying, “We will wrap your legs in barbed wire, and you will burn in hellfire.”
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 closed in August.
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 it provides information about — and in some cases performs — abortions.