By Tara Murtha, WLP Staff
A federal judge has upheld the constitutionality of a 15-foot buffer zone ordinance that protects health care facilities in Pittsburgh. The decision is the first federal ruling on the constitutionality of a clinic buffer zone since McCullen v. Coakley, the Supreme Court case decided last June.
In the Pittsburgh case, Nikki Bruni and four other anti-choice protesters sued the city, claiming the buffer zone prevented her and other protesters from “sidewalk counseling” patients entering the Planned Parenthood health center on Liberty Avenue. Bruni is the local campaign director of “40 Days for Life,” a campaign wherein anti-choice protesters picket clinics daily for forty days every spring and fall. The campaign is happening now.
The protesters were represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, the same organization that represented the plaintiffs in McCullen. The Alliance announced their intention to challenge the Pittsburgh buffer zone immediately in the wake of McCullen, which struck down the 35-foot buffer zone established by the Massachusetts Reproductive Health Care Facilities Act as insufficiently narrowly tailored.
In ruling in the Bruni case, U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon held that the protesters were unlikely to be able to prove that the Pittsburgh buffer zone ordinance was unconstitutional under McCullen. She also denied the protesters’ request for a preliminary injunction and dismissed all of the protesters’ claims except for an allegation that a police officer did not enforce the law evenhandedly, which could not be resolved without additional evidence.
From Judge Bissoon’s ruling:
Prior to the enactment of the Ordinance, there were incidents of physical intimidation, violence and obstruction where the buffer zone now stands. Such incidents have rarely, if ever, occurred since the buffer zone has been implemented…
The buffer zone does not prevent a willing listener from stopping within the zone in order to accept Mrs. Bruni’s literature and listen to her message, or from exiting the zone in order to converse with her further. The Ordinance does not prevent Mrs. Bruni or anyone else from engaging in sidewalk counseling with individuals leaving the clinic, once they exit the buffer zone.
“This ruling is a great victory for the City of Pittsburgh and will help protect both the patients in need of medical care and the doctors and medical staff at Planned Parenthood,” says Sue Frietsche, senior staff attorney at the Women’s Law Project’s Western Pennsylvania office in Pittsburgh, which represented Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania and its volunteer escorts in the suit. “Women who have to fight their way past anti-abortion protesters in order to see their doctor deserve, at least, the safety and dignity of a small secure space in front of the health center door.”
During the 40 Days’ campaign, 5 to 15 protesters have been picketing daily outside the door of the Planned Parenthood on Liberty Street.
“We’re very grateful to the City of Pittsburgh for defending this reasonable and much-needed ordinance,” says Kim Evert, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania and a witness in the Bruni case. Evert testified that a person standing inside the buffer zone at its deepest point can hear those outside of the zone speaking in normal, conversational tones, and patients regularly enter the clinic holding literature given to them by protesters.
“Patient safety is always our number one priority, and the buffer zone has been essential in allowing our patients to access the healthcare services they need without fear of harassment or intimidation from strangers. Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania is thrilled that our buffer zone will stay in effect to protect our patients and staff and ensure public safety.”
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