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Federal Judge Denies Request for Injunction Against Pittsburgh 'Buffer Zone'

March 10, 2015 — A federal judge on Friday denied five abortion-rights opponents' request for an injunction to block enforcement of a Pittsburgh "buffer zone" ordinance, the AP/York Enquirer Herald reports. However, the judge permitted the underlying case to move forward (AP/York Enquirer Herald, 3/6).

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 2009 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.

The abortion-rights opponents, 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 high court noted in the Massachusetts case (Women's Health Policy Report, 12/23/14).

Ruling Details

In her ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Cathy Bissoon wrote that the buffer zone did not violate the protesters' First Amendment rights. She wrote, "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."

She dismissed several of the plaintiffs' claims against the buffer zone (Ove, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 3/6).

However, she said there was not enough evidence to indicate whether Pittsburgh officials have selectively enforced the buffer zone (AP/York Enquirer Herald, 3/6). As a result, she ruled that the underlying suit could continue on the plaintiffs' claim that individuals associated with Planned Parenthood who escort women into clinics are able to gather inside the buffer zones and speak with the women, while abortion-rights opponents are not.

In addition, Bissoon dismissed the Pittsburgh City Council as a defendant in the case, ruling that while the council passed the ordinance, it is not charged with enforcing it. She allowed Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto (D) to remain a defendant in the case.

Next Steps

The city has until March 20 to file court documents responding to the claim that the buffer zone has been selectively enforced (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 3/6).

Meanwhile, ADF said it is considering whether to appeal Bissoon's decision (AP/York Enquirer Herald, 3/6).