PORTLAND, Maine — An anti-abortion protester has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to rule on whether police can enforce noise regulations against demonstrators outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Maine’s largest city.
A lawyer for Andrew March, the pastor of a Lewiston church that organizes regular rallies outside the downtown Portland health center, filed a petition Monday for the Supreme Court to review an appeal court’s decision that protesters could be cited for breaking a state noise ordinance.
The request challenges a ruling by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and comes as the latest step in a legal drama that, since 2015, has risen from the Cumberland County courthouse to the doors of the country’s highest judicial body.
This summer, a panel of federal judges reversed a lower federal court’s decision in the suit March had filed against several Portland police, the city and Maine Attorney General Janet Mills.
A federal judge for Maine ruled in 2016 that the noise section of the Maine Civil Rights Act was unconstitutional because it was based on the content of what a protester said. But in August, three 1st Circuit judges ruled that the law is message-neutral and could therefore be enforced if the protesters became loud enough to disrupt the workings of the Planned Parenthood clinic.
March’s lawyer is challenging this finding, which she argues is an attempt to limit speech by separating the purpose for which words are spoken, or shouted, from the words themselves.
“This, however, is a distinction without difference that affords governments the right to silence all speech they find disagreeable,” said Kate Oliveri, of the Thomas More Law Center.
The Michigan-based legal group describes itself as defending and promoting “America’s Judeo-Christian heritage and moral values.” It also contends on March’s behalf that Maine’s noise ordinance restricts the shouts of anti-abortion protesters but not other loud noises and demonstrations that can be heard in Planned Parenthood’s second-floor clinic on Congress Street.
“We have had Black Lives Matter protesters, we have had environmentalists here, none of them have had to face the wrath of the court, but for some reason, we are dealing with it,” March, who preaches at a church called Cell 53, said during a protest this summer.
A spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England dismissed those claims.
“An ambulance driving down the street is very different than sustained yelling outside the health center,” said Nicole Clegg of Planned Parenthood. “The courts have been consistent in their view that people are entitled to a quiet, safe space when seeking care, and shouldn’t be held hostage by protestors and their efforts to disrupt treatment.”
Attorney General Janet Mills expressed skepticism that March’s case would make it to the Supreme Court, noting that it “grants petitions in less than one-half of 1 percent of cases.”
“But if they do decide to hear it, we say bring it on,” she said.
It was not immediately clear when the Supreme Court would decide whether to hear the case.