Council protects clinic patients, invites lawsuit

 Balancing Rights
By JEFF INGLIS  |  November 20, 2013

BUFFER ZONE This map, from city documents,
delineates the area anti-abortion protesters
must stay clear of.

On Monday evening, the Portland City Council voted unanimously to create the state’s first limited-speech buffer zone around a reproductive health-care facility, for the purpose of protecting patients at the Planned Parenthood of Northern New England clinic at 443 Congress Street from intimidation by anti-abortion protesters. The ordinance includes a last-minute amendment allowing it to take effect immediately.

The decision invites a legal challenge, such as those that have been brought against other states’ and towns’ buffer zones; a case before the US Supreme Court’s current session will test a very similar Massachusetts law.

Abortion opponents began demonstrating outside the PPNNE clinic last fall, after its move downtown from a Forest Avenue location that was never a site of significant or sustained protests. The new space’s improved access for patients also brought expanded publicity for people who oppose abortion rights, despite the fact that most of the clinic’s patients are not seeking abortions but other services such as birth-control medication, cervical-cancer screenings, and blood tests.

According to written testimony submitted to the council, patients have frequently felt intimidated when attempting to enter the clinic, but they also understand the underlying conflict, between the rights of the protesters to express themselves freely on public sidewalks, and the rights of the patients to have unfettered (and private) access to health-care services.

A woman identified as Jo described her experience entering the clinic on March 22: “I firmly believe in free speech and the free flow of ideas. This crosses the line with vile photos of aborted fetuses and scripture being chanted. The sidewalk is like walking a gauntlet [sic]. This poses an intentionally threatening and intimidating environment, encroaching on my life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.”

Maine law already prevents protesters from blocking a patient’s path to the door of a clinic, bans threats made toward clinic staff or patients (including by telephone), and outlaws excessive noise aimed at disturbing the occupants of a clinic or health-care facility. PPNNE has hired a Portland police officer to patrol the sidewalk nearby, to help enforce those laws, but problems remain. The buffer zone was proposed as a way to balance the competing rights, keeping protesters away from the entrances to the PPNNE clinic without forcing them so far away that their message would be utterly unable to reach its intended audience.

Decades of strife around Massachusetts reproductive-health clinics led to the 2000 passage of a statewide so-called “floating buffer,” requiring protesters to keep six feet away from patients and staff who are within 18 feet of the clinic entrance. Other states have similar laws; Colorado’s offers broader safety: an eight-foot “floating buffer” within 100 feet of clinic doors.

But a 2007 revision in Massachusetts exchanged the distance-from-people rule for one imposing a “hard” 35-foot buffer around clinic entrances — saying that protesters had to stay that far from clinic doorways and driveways, regardless of their distance from patients and staff.
The Portland ordinance imposes a hard buffer of 39 feet (expanded from an originally proposed 35 feet to prevent small gaps in coverage); effectively, the whole sidewalk around the PPNNE building will be off-limits to protesters, as well as short distances on the sidewalks of Elm and Congress streets beyond the extent of the PPNNE building.

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