Pro-Choice Win: Federal Court Upholds Pittsburgh Buffer Zone

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Pro-Choice Win: Federal Court Upholds Pittsburgh Buffer Zone

Jessica Mason Pieklo

A federal court in Pennsylvania was the first to uphold an abortion clinic buffer zone ordinance since the Supreme Court called into question the constitutionality of similar laws last summer.

A federal judge in Pennsylvania last week upheld the enforcement of a Pittsburgh ordinance that establishes a 15-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics.

U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon issued the ruling in the case of Nikki Bruni and four other anti-choice protesters who sued the city last year claiming the ordinance unconstitutionally prevented them from offering “sidewalk counseling” to patients. The conservative religious advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed the lawsuit on Bruni’s behalf and had asked the court for an injunction blocking the ordinance.

Bruni is the local campaign director for “40 Days for Life,” a nationwide anti-choice protest campaign that targets clinics for daily protests and picketing.

Bissoon’s order upholding Pittsburgh’s buffer zone is the first federal court decision to examine the constitutionality of abortion clinic buffer zones after last summer’s Supreme Court decision in McCullen v. Coakely, which struck down a Massachusetts buffer zone law.

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The Pittsburgh ordinance creates a 15-foot buffer zone around health-care facilities in the city. As first passed in 2005, the ordinance creates both a fixed 15-foot buffer zone around facilities and a floating “bubble” zone around patients.

The bubble zone rule meant that people outside the clinic were protected by a roving eight-foot buffer zone while within 100 feet of the clinic. But in 2009, a court ruled that Pittsburgh must choose between either a fixed or floating buffer zone, but not both at the same time. Friday’s ruling upholds the fixed 15-foot buffer zone.

Bissoon, in upholding Pittsburgh’s buffer zone, noted the history of anti-choice violence that had plagued the area and concluded that the ordinance did not violate protesters’ First Amendment rights. “Prior to the enactment of the Ordinance, there were incidents of physical intimidation, violence and obstruction where the buffer zone now stands,” Bissoon wrote. “Such incidents have rarely, if ever, occurred since the buffer zone has been implemented.”

“While plaintiffs’ message is restricted in that they cannot continue to walk alongside women as they approach within fifteen feet of the entrance, that method of communication is not foreclosed or effectively stifled,” Bissoon concluded.

Attorneys for ADF said they are considering appealing Friday’s decision.

“Americans, including those who are pro-life, have the freedom to speak with whomever they please on public sidewalks,” ADF litigation council Elissa Graves said in a statement. “Because of this, we are considering appeal of the court’s decision, which allows enforcement of Pittsburgh’s unconstitutional censorship zones to continue.”

Bissoon’s ruling did not dismiss all of the protesters’ claims, however. Bissoon let continue a claim by protesters that police do not enforce the buffer zone evenhandedly. She also ruled that more evidence is needed to resolve that claim and ordered that it continue to trial.