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Federal Judge To Decide Pittsburgh 'Buffer Zone' Case After Parties Fail To Reach Agreement

December 23, 2014 — A U.S. District Court judge will rule on five antiabortion-rights activists' request for an injunction blocking enforcement of a Pittsburgh "buffer zone" ordinance after the city and the activists failed to reach a compromise, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports.

After hearing oral arguments earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon gave the parties until Dec. 19 to reach an agreement, but attorneys said in filings that day that they remained at odds (Bowling, Pittsburg Tribune-Review, 12/19).

Background

The Pittsburgh buffer zone law is a modified version of a 2005 ordinance that the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down in 2009. In that ruling, the appeals court said the ordinance was illegal because it barred protesters from leafleting and other forms of free speech within a 15-foot zone around any "hospital or health care facility" and also barred protesters from coming within an 8-foot "bubble zone" of women who were within 100 feet of a clinic.

After the ruling, the city decided to drop the bubble zone provision. Further, another federal judge ruled that protesters could distribute leaflets and converse with women on a one-on-one basis as long as they did not "knowingly congregate, patrol, picket or demonstrate" in the buffer zone (Women's Health Policy Report, 12/5).

Lawsuit Details

The antiabortion-rights activists, represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, claim that the law violates a unanimous Supreme Court ruling that struck down a Massachusetts law barring protesters from entering a 35-foot buffer around abortion clinics.

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh city attorneys have said the city's ordinance does not raise the First Amendment issues the court noted in the Massachusetts case (Pittsburgh-Tribune Review, 12/19). They have argued that the law is "content neutral" because it applies to all health care facilities in the city. In addition, Assistant City Solicitor Michael Kennedy has contended that tactics such as sidewalk counseling and leafleting amount to "demonstrating" (Women's Health Policy Report, 12/5).

Both sides in their filings last week said they will continue negotiating. In the meantime, they will file final legal arguments to enable Bissoon to rule on the request for an injunction (Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 12/19).