A city ordinance aimed at restricting the extent of pro-life demonstrations outside of Mississippi’s lone abortion clinic has been in Jackson.
The Jackson City Council voted Tuesday to repeal a local ordinance that limited amplified noise and prevented pro-life activists from engaging in sidewalk counseling outside of Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
The vote came in response to a lawsuit filed last year against Jackson officials by the Mississippi Justice Institute on behalf of the pro-life group Sidewalk Advocates for Life.
MJI Director Aaron Rice said in a statement that he considered the vote “a major victory for free speech for Jackson and the state of Mississippi.”
“We are pleased that the city of Jackson has decided to do the right thing and end this unconstitutional restriction on free expression,” stated Rice.
Diane Derzis, the owner of the Jackson clinic, told the Associated Press that she opposes the decision and contends that the city council was “not willing to do the right thing.”
“[City officials are] not willing to do it for the women who walk in that door or the women who work in the clinic or the people who walk on the street or the businesses that are nearby,” said Derzis.
In October of last year, the Jackson City Council approved an ordinance that, among other things, created a 15-foot, anti-protest buffer zone around all health-care facilities.
It also prohibited speakers and audio amplifiers within 100 feet of the clinic and demonstrators from getting within eight feet of a clinic patient who would be within a 100-foot radius of the abortion clinic without the consent of the patient.
Taking effect 30 days after its passage, people who violated the buffer zone ordinance faced a punishment of up to 90 days in jail, a fine not to exceed $1,000, or both.
Katherine Ragsdale, the interim president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, said in a statement released at the time of the vote that she approved of the new ordinance.
“We are proud to call Jackson Women's Health (Organization) a NAF member and look forward to the positive impact this ordinance will have on their patients' experiences,” stated Ragsdale last year, as reported by the Jackson Free Press.
“Abortion providers are targeted every day for anti-abortion violence and disruption. This ordinance will help to reduce the harassment and obstruction patients experience when trying to obtain the health care they need.”
Soon after the ordinance was passed, Sidewalk Advocates for Life filed a complaint, accusing city officials of violating their constitutional rights.
“By preventing Appellants from approaching other persons, without first obtaining their consent, near the abortion facility in order to engage in sidewalk advocacy, and by prohibiting other forms of speech, the Ordinance violates Appellants’ rights to free speech,” the lawsuit states.
“The Ordinance also irreparably harms persons patronizing the abortion facility by denying them access to useful information concerning the alternatives to abortion.”
In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that a Massachusetts law barring abortion clinic protests within 35 feet of a clinic burdens “substantially more speech than necessary to achieve the Commonwealth’s asserted interests.”
“... the Commonwealth has available to it a variety of approaches that appear capable of serving its interests, without excluding individuals from areas historically open for speech and debate,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in the majority opinion.