Third Circuit strikes down abortion clinic layered protest zones

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit [official website] has struck down [opinion, PDF; press release] a City of Pittsburgh [official website] ordinance [text, PDF] that created a layered zone structure to prevent protesters from gathering outside abortion facilities. The ordinance created a "buffer zone," preventing protesters from coming within 15 feet of the entrance of a medical facility, and also a "bubble zone," which prevented protesters from coming closer than eight feet to individuals within a 100 foot radius around a facility. In ruling Friday that the ordinance is unconstitutional, the court held that either of the zones created by the ordinance would be proper by themselves, but in combination they were not sufficiently narrowly tailored:


Leafletting, a "classic form of speech that lies at the heart of the First Amendment," is especially hard hit by the bubble zone's enforcement of a space of separation. Although the buffer zone, standing alone, would require leafletters to remain beyond arm's reach of a medical facilities' entrances, they would still be able to approach individuals outside of the fifteen-foot radius in order to distribute their literature. With the additional restrictions of the bubble zone, on the other hand, not only are leafletters forbidden from distributing literature within the buffer zone, but they may not approach within eight feet of oncoming pedestrians absent their consent anywhere within one hundred feet of health care facility entrances. ... In our view, the combination of the two zones burdens substantially more speech than appears necessary, on this record, to achieve the government's interests.

The ruling was the result of a lawsuit [fact sheet, PDF] brought in 2006 by the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) [advocacy website] on behalf of Mary Kathryn Brown, a registered nurse who works in Pittsburgh and has sought to dissuade woman from undergoing abortions for more than 15 years. Brown had challenged the ordinance, saying it violated the free speech and other protections of the Pennsylvania and US Constitutions [text] because it prevented her from passing out information about the dangers of and alternatives to abortions.

First Amendment protections for abortion protesters has been a highly contentious issue. In July, the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld [JURIST report] a Massachusetts law [text] prohibiting people from protesting directly outside of abortion clinics. The court ruled that the law, which created a 35-foot buffer zone around entrances and exits of reproductive health clinics, was a reasonable response to a significant threat to public safety. Last year, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled [JURIST report] that the First Amendment protected an anti-abortion group's right to display graphic pictures of early-term aborted fetuses outside of a California middle school.

 

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