Last week, attorneys from the religious advocacy organization the Thomas More Center filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a Portland, Maine, buffer zone ordinance enacted earlier this year by the city council.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court on behalf of an evangelical couple and two of their seven children, argues that the ordinance, which creates protest-free zones within 39 feet of a reproductive health-care center, infringes on their constitutional free speech rights. The plaintiffs, Daniel and Marguerite Fitzgerald, and their high school age children are frequent protesters at the Portland Planned Parenthood center and claim a right to “counsel” patients, including an ability to speak in close proximity to them.
The lawsuit asks the federal court to declare the buffer zone unconstitutional and permanently block the city from enforcing it.
Representatives from Planned Parenthood dispute claims that the buffer zone prevents protesters like the Fitzgeralds from getting their message to patients. Prior to the passage of the Portland ordinance, protesters created what Eric Covey, Maine Grassroots Organizer for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England (PPNNE), described to Rewire as a “harrowing gauntlet” along the sidewalk leading up to the health-care facility, in which patients, staff, and pedestrians had to navigate to reach their destination.
“The patient safety zone ordinance, since it was passed, has made a tremendous difference in the ability of our patients to access health care free of harassment and intimidation while still preserving individual rights to freedom of speech,” said Covey. “The protesters are still able to communicate their intended message, but the buffer zone provides the physical space necessary to allow them to get into the health-care center.”
The issue of balancing the rights of patients to access reproductive health care free from intimidation versus the free speech rights of anti-abortion protesters is currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court in McCullen v. Coakley, a challenge to a similar Massachusetts buffer zone law. And while the courts have generally sided with health-care centers, during oral arguments it appeared as though there were a majority of justices willing to scale back the Massachusetts law specifically, and perhaps the legality of buffer zones entirely. A broad ruling in the McCullen case could affect the legal challenge to the Portland buffer zone.
“No one should be forced to endure intimidation or harassment from strangers on the way to a doctor’s visit,” said PPNNE Director of Public Affairs Nicole Clegg in a statement. “I hope the court will agree that this ordinance strikes the right balance between the rights of women to access health care, the city’s interest in protecting public safety, and the free speech rights of all Portland residents.”