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Abortion-rights opponents file lawsuit against Chicago buffer zone

August 25, 2016 — Abortion-rights opponents have filed a federal lawsuit against a 2009 Chicago ordinance that establishes an 8-foot "bubble zone" around individuals within 50 feet of a health care facility, the Chicago Tribune reports (Moreno, Chicago Tribune, 8/23).

Background

According to the Chicago Sun-Times, the ordinance requires that anyone who wants to distribute leaflets, "displa[y] a sign to, or engag[e] in oral protest, education or counseling" must first obtain consent before coming within 8 feet of a person who is within 50 feet of a medical facility. The ordinance also bars the use or threat of force.

Individuals who violate the ordinance can be fined up to $500 (Watts, Chicago Sun-Times, 8/23).

City officials based the ordinance on a Colorado law that similarly establishes an 8-foot bubble zone around individuals within 100 feet of a health care facility. According to the Tribune, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000 upheld the Colorado law in Hill v. Colorado. However, in a separate ruling in 2014, the Supreme Court struck down a different buffer zone law in Massachusetts.

Lawsuit details

The Thomas More Society filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Pro-Life Action League, the Live Pro Life Group and four antiabortion-rights protesters. Defendants include the city of Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson and Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs claim the ordinance violates their rights under the First and 14th Amendments. In addition, the plaintiffs allege that the city police force discriminates against abortion opponents, leading to harassment and false arrests (Chicago Tribune, 8/23). Stephen Crampton, special counsel for the plaintiffs, claimed the ordinance was selectively applied to exempt abortion-rights supporters and clinic escorts (Chicago Sun-Times, 8/23).

Comments

Bill McCaffrey, a spokesperson for Chicago's Law Department, declined to comment on the lawsuit, but said the city would defend the ordinance. "[T]he City's ordinance protects the First Amendment rights of protesters and is almost identical to a statute the Supreme Court has already upheld (in Hill vs. Colorado), except that our buffer zone is much smaller," he said (Chicago Tribune, 8/23).

Brigid Leahy, director of public policy for Planned Parenthood of Illinois, disputed claims from the plaintiffs that the ordinance was selectively applied in favor of clinic escorts, citing the difference in the role of an escort and that of an unknown protester. "We warn clients on the phone about possible protests and that escorts are available to walk in with them," she said (Chicago Sun-Times, 8/23).

Also discussing the role of escorts, Julie Lynn, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood, said, "We are here to make sure patients are able to access the center safely and (get) the health care services they need without feeling harassed or shamed."

Lynn also pointed out that the 8-foot bubble zone balances free speech rights while protecting patients. She said without the buffer zone, abortion-rights opponents are "standing right next to the door and bombarding patients who are coming and going out of the health center."

In addition, citing the comprehensive reproductive services offered at the clinic, Lynn said of the protesters, "They don't know what the patient is doing here, they could be coming here for any service. And they have the right to get those services, whatever they may be."

Separately, Vicki Saporta, president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, said buffer and bubble zones shield patients from the "very real threats and intimidation" they face when seeking out abortion care. "And they do so while continuing to respect the free-speech rights of anti-abortion protesters to distribute literature or engage in conversation," she said (Chicago Tribune, 8/23).