PORTLAND, Maine — Portland police confirmed that anti-abortion protests outside the city’s Planned Parenthood clinic have increased in number and activity since the revocation of a buffer zone, as demonstrators pressed in court to be awarded monetary damages for the months they’d been forced across the street by the city-imposed restriction.
An attorney representing the anti-abortion demonstrators said her clients are asking the court for just $1 in damages, in part, to force the city to acknowledge it restricted the constitutional rights of the protesters with its buffer zone.
But local Planned Parenthood officials said Thursday that recent behavior by demonstrators outside of their 443 Congress St. facility shows how important that buffer zone was in protecting patients from “harassment, bullying and intimidation.”
Nicole Clegg, vice president of public policy for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, said her organization had to seek police intervention on Friday and Saturday as larger groups of protesters turned out, blocked passage along the public sidewalk near the clinic’s entrance and yelled loud enough to prompt a warning from the officer on duty.
Clegg said more than 30 demonstrators gathered outside the clinic on Friday, while “about a dozen” turned out on Saturday.
“The loss of the city’s buffer zone was felt keenly this past week when dozens of protesters descended upon our health center with the intent to intimidate and harass our patients,” said Clegg in a statement.
Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck confirmed on Thursday that his officers saw a larger number of demonstrators last weekend than in previous weeks. He said the police did have to ask a protester to stop obstructing the public walkway and warn the anti-abortion group to quiet down.
“Case law has shown that it is a civil rights violation if you can hear the protests from inside the examination room,” Sauschuck said. “That’s what Planned Parenthood reported was happening, and we had to ask the protesters to lower the volume.”
But the chief added that, once warned, the demonstrators complied. No arrests or referrals to the attorney general’s office were made, he said.
Clegg argued anti-abortion activities have been “escalating” since a U.S. Supreme Court’s June ruling that a 35-foot no protest zone around abortion clinics in Massachusetts was an unconstitutional infringement on demonstrators’ free speech rights.
With the high court precedent set, the Portland City Council then repealed its similar 39-foot abortion clinic buffer zone. The city followed up by waving the white flag on a lawsuit by protesters challenging the ordinance in federal court, asking U.S. District Court Judge Nancy Torresen to dismiss the case as unnecessary since the zone in question had been voluntarily dropped.
“The city’s position, as stated in its federal court filings, is that because the council acted so expeditiously to repeal the ordinance, the case is moot and no damages should be awarded,” said city spokeswoman Jessica Grondin on Thursday.
But Erin Kuenzig, attorney for the Thomas More Law Center representing the anti-abortion demonstrators, filed a response urging Torresen to officially rule in her clients’ favor, not just dismiss the case.
“This case is not about money at all,” Kuenzig said in an email. “Our complaint filed with the court requested that the court issue a declaration that the defendants violated plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights.
“We have asked the court for nominal damages in the amount of $1 in recognition of that violation,” she said. “The defendants violated our clients’ rights the moment the clients were prohibited from exercising their free speech rights because of the ordinance. Just because the city repealed the ordinance because of our lawsuit does not remove the constitutional violations that had already occurred. Defendants appear to contend that no constitutional violation occurred and that no harm was suffered in this case. We see that as a significant issue that remains to be addressed.”
Grondin said city staff are investigating other, more legally defensible measures to create separation between clinic patients and protesters, and plan to deliver those buffer zone alternatives to the City Council’s Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee at its Sept. 9 meeting.
Kuenzig said she hopes an official ruling on her clients’ behalf would hasten the city as it does so. Kuenzig represents evangelical Shapleigh couple Daniel and Marguerite Fitzgerald, two of their seven children and Richmond resident Leslie Sneddon in the lawsuit.
“The fact that the defendants refuse to admit any harm occurred presents serious cause for concern that they will continue to disregard the importance of First Amendment rights by enacting a similar speech restricting ordinance,” Kuenzig said. “A ruling in our favor would set a precedent and would be persuasive authority for a judge to consider if the city of Portland decides to enact a similar buffer zone ordinance.
“Such an order would also, hopefully, cause the city of Portland to tread more carefully in the future when it comes to unnecessarily restricting the constitutional rights of its citizens,” she said. “It is important that the case be pursued because First Amendment rights are absolutely vital to secure all of the other freedoms that we enjoy as Americans.”