Portland City Council to consider repeal of its abortion clinic buffer zone

Portland city attorney Trish McAllister talks to reporters outside the federal courthouse in Portland on June 19 after oral arguments in a case about the city's 39-foot no-protest zone around the local Planned Parenthood clinic.
Seth Koenig | BDN
Portland city attorney Trish McAllister talks to reporters outside the federal courthouse in Portland on June 19 after oral arguments in a case about the city's 39-foot no-protest zone around the local Planned Parenthood clinic.
Posted July 07, 2014, at 12:27 p.m.
Last modified July 07, 2014, at 3:25 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — The Portland City Council will consider repealing its 39-foot no-protest zone around the city’s only abortion clinic on Monday night, after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling late last month struck down a similar buffer in Massachusetts.

But operators of the Portland clinic, Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, stated Monday they hope the council doesn’t stop there.

Nicole Clegg, the organization’s vice president of public policy, said in a statement that while she understands the city’s interest in throwing out its buffer zone — before a federal judge does it first — she wants Portland’s leaders to look for another way to force anti-abortion demonstrators to keep their distance from clinic patients.

“The reason the buffer zone was necessary in the first place was because of the routine harassment, bullying, and intimidation of patients and staff by protesters,” Clegg said in a statement. “Since the buffer zone took effect, the atmosphere has been far less hostile, and more of a peaceful coexistence. We continue to believe that the buffer zone in Portland fairly balanced the First Amendment rights of individuals with the rights of our patients to access health care safely and without harassment.”

Representatives of the Thomas More Law Center, which is representing a group of anti-abortion demonstrators who have challenged the Portland ordinance in federal court, said Monday that they will press on with the lawsuit, regardless of what action Portland officials take.

“We will still pursue an order from the court seeking a judgment declaring that the city violated the First Amendment rights of the plaintiffs,” attorney Erin Kuenzig wrote in an email to the Bangor Daily News.

The City Council unanimously approved the buffer zone in November to push back demonstrators who had been gathering weekly outside Planned Parenthood for about a year to protest against abortion.

Planned Parenthood representatives argued before the council that patients, many of whom were not going to the clinic to seek abortions, felt harassed and intimidated by the protesters, and the buffer zone was necessary to preserve those patients’ legally protected rights to receive health care.

But protesters, some of whom represented the group Pro-Life Missionaries of Maine, countered that their behavior was being blown out of proportion, that the lack of any arrests from demonstrations before the buffer zone was implemented showed that they’d been peaceful and law-abiding, and that the activity is protected speech as defined by the First Amendment.

A group — evangelical Shapleigh couple Daniel and Marguerite Fitzgerald, two of their seven children and Richmond resident Leslie Sneddon — then sued the city to get the buffer zone thrown out, arguing in part that the 39-foot distance prevents them from having conversations about alternatives to abortion with their intended audience, the clinic patients.

“The city of Portland has other laws at its disposal that it could enforce to achieve its goals which would still allow law-abiding citizens to use the public sidewalk to engage in peaceful conversation with other citizens,” Kuenzig said. “All that this ordinance does is ensure that women entering the city’s abortion clinic only hear one voice in a moment of crisis, and that voice comes from Planned Parenthood — the largest abortion provider in America.”

U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Torresen, presiding over the lawsuit, previously told attorneys for both sides she was seeking “guidance” from the Supreme Court on the issue with the looming decision in the Massachusetts case, and with the high court’s 9-0 vote to scrap the similar Bay State buffer zone, the Portland ordinance now faces almost impossible odds in the lower court.

In advance of Monday night’s Portland City Council meeting, Mayor Michael Brennan sponsored an agenda item seeking consideration of a repeal of the buffer zone.

City attorney Trish McAllister, who has represented Portland in the Fitzgerald case, told the council in a preliminary meeting document that “the Massachusetts buffer zone law upon which the Portland ordinance was based” … “did not pass constitutional muster as applied to plaintiffs who wish to ‘peacefully converse’ with abortion clinic patients.”

Watch bangordailynews.com for updates.

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