December 15, 2017
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State noise ordinance can be used against abortion protesters, court rules

By Judy Harrison, BDN Staff
Updated:
Troy R. Bennett | BDN | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN | BDN
A man, who refused to give his name, preaches loudly against abortion outside Planned Parenthood on Congress Street in Portland in 2015.

Portland police may enforce Maine’s noise ordinance against protesters outside Planned Parenthood’s Portland clinic, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday said.

A three-judge panel reversed U.S. District Judge Nancy Torresen’s May 2016 decision that found the noise section of the Maine Civil Rights Act unconstitutional because it was based on the content of what a protester said.

But the appellate court found that the noise section of the law, as written, is not based on the message being conveyed during a protest.

The case began when Andrew March of Lewiston, a frequent protester outside the Portland clinic, sued Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, the city of Portland and several Portland police officers in December 2015, after local police told him he could not shout his protests from the street at the clinic.

Tuesday’s decision applies only to protests outside facilities that provide health care services. It would not apply to those outside the State House or a municipal building, for instance.

“The noise provision was the product of a careful legislative process,” Judge David Barron wrote in the 50-page decision. “That process sought to forge a consensus among many competing interests in order to address what all parties to this dispute agree is a serious concern regarding the health and safety of those seeking health services.”

Michigan attorney Kate Oliveri, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of March, said Tuesday afternoon that she had not read the decision so she could not comment on its content. But even if the law is constitutional, the way it is enforced may not be, she said.

Oliveri still could file motions for reconsideration or seek a full panel review, which would delay enforcement of the noise provision.

Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin, who worked on the case, said her office was “gratified by the decision.”

“This law been on the books for 20 years,” Robbin said. “A number of groups came together at a time when there was violence around the country against family planning clinics. Everyone, including the Christian Civic League of Maine [which opposes abortion] agreed this would be a reasonable restriction outside clinics.”

The law was first used in 2015 when the protests outside the Portland clinic became so loud that they interfered with providing health care services to patients inside the clinic, she said.

“Protest are fine but once patients have run the gauntlet outside the clinic, once the door to the exam room or the consultation room is shut, that should be a sanctuary,” Robbin said. “People shouldn’t be barraged with screaming while obtaining medical care.”

 


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