Pa. city can’t stop pro-life activists from counseling women outside abortion clinics, says federal court

Planned Parenthood South Austin Health Center is seen following the U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a Texas law requiring abortion clinics to meet basic health and safety standards, Austin, Texas, June 27, 2016.
Planned Parenthood South Austin Health Center is seen following the U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a Texas law requiring abortion clinics to meet basic health and safety standards, Austin, Texas, June 27, 2016. | (Photo: Reuters/Ilana Panich-Linsman)

A three-judge federal appeals court panel has upheld a Pennsylvania city’s ordinance creating a buffer zone restricting demonstrations outside of abortion clinics, however it ruled that the ordinance does not apply to pro-life counselors.

In Bruni v. City of Pittsburgh, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit panel released a decision last Friday upholding Pittsburgh’s Code § 623.04, which bans demonstrations within fifteen feet of entrances to healthcare facilities, including abortion clinics.

The lawsuit was brought by a group of pro-life demonstrators who believed that Pittsburgh city officials were wrongfully targeting them via the ordinance.

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Judge Cheryl Ann Krause authored the court opinion, in which she concluded that the ordinance did not “prohibit the sidewalk counseling in which Plaintiffs seek to engage within the zone.”

“No doubt, if the Ordinance by its terms did prohibit one on-one conversations about abortion but not about other subjects within the zone, it would be highly problematic,” wrote Judge Krause.

“The text of the Ordinance says nothing about leafletting or peaceful one-on-one conversations, let alone on a particular topic or for a particular purpose.”

Krause affirmed that the ordinance does prohibit other forms of protest at abortion clinics and deemed efforts to curb those actions as a “legitimate” interest of the city.

Judge Thomas Hardiman authored a concurring opinion that the decision restricts Pittsburgh’s ability to use the ordinance against protesters, noting that the city “cannot target quiet conversations even if they are not in a tone of ‘kindness, love, hope, gentleness, and help.’”

“And the City’s enforcement of the Ordinance must be evenhanded,” wrote Hardiman, referencing abortion clinic employees who could not be punished for counseling people entering or exiting the facility.

“Before today, the City’s broad and amorphous interpretation of the Ordinance risked allowing those employees to engage in speech that others could not.”

The Alliance Defending Freedom represented the pro-life demonstrators. ADF Legal Counsel Elissa Graves said in a statement released last Friday that, thanks to the ruling, “the government can’t censor peaceful, pro-life conversation on public sidewalks.”

“Citizens have the freedom to share a message of hope and compassion with any mother seeking to make an informed choice about her pregnancy,” stated Graves.

“Pittsburgh politicians aren’t at liberty to silence speech they dislike. As the U.S. Supreme Court recognized in last year’s NIFLA v. Becerra decision, ‘the people lose when the government is the one deciding which ideas should prevail.’”

Kimberlee S. Evert, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania, also celebrated the decision, telling local media that she considered the ruling “really great news for us.”

“I think overall the decision is a huge victory actually for Planned Parenthood and for other health centers because the court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the buffer zone and basically did say that people can’t congregate, picket, patrol or demonstrate within the buffer zone,” stated Evert to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“So as long as the protesters comply with this, we don’t anticipate it having any impact on our patients. They could just say, ‘No, thank you.’ As long as they follow what the law is, they will be fine, and if they don’t, then we will involve the authorities.”  

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