Five abortion protesters asked a federal judge on Wednesday to keep the city of Pittsburgh from enforcing an ordinance that establishes a 15-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics, but the judge said she wants to read more argument before she decides.
Protesters represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a religious advocacy group, say in a federal suit filed in September that the zone keeps them from conducting “sidewalk counseling” of women entering the Planned Parenthood facility on Liberty Avenue to have abortions.
They asked U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon for an injunction against the city’s ordinance establishing the zone, which is marked on the sidewalk with a spray-painted yellow semicircle.
Lawyers for the city argued Wednesday that the zone is “content neutral” because it applies to other health facilities, although in court they conceded that it’s not an issue anywhere else but in front of abortion clinics.
Lead plaintiff Nikki Bruni of Verona, wearing an outfit covered with crosses, testified that the zone prevents her and others in her group from quietly counseling women to get them to change their minds about having an abortion. She said Liberty Avenue is too busy with buses, foot traffic and construction for them to be heard from 15 feet away.
“It’s inhibiting our ability to have close conversations,” she said.
She also complained that a Planned Parenthood security guard keeps her group and other protesters out of the zone, even if they aren’t carrying signs or demonstrating and merely want to walk next to a woman and talk to her as she enters the building.
City Solicitor Michael Kennedy said the city has no control over what a security guard does, but he said city police have not been called in recent years for any incidents.
“We’re happy that we don't have to enforce it,” he said.
The ordinance doesn’t keep someone from talking to a woman or handing out leaflets, but he said the narrow zone just outside the clinic doors is necessary to prevent pushing and shoving that had been happening before the law was enacted.
He said the zone keeps the sidewalk “uncluttered” and allows women to enter “free of anxiety” in being confronted by protesters.
The ordinance was established in 2005. It was later modified when the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down an 8-foot “bubble zone” that kept protesters from approaching individuals close enough to hand out leaflets.
Judge Bissoon asked the lawyers to submit more briefs by Dec. 19. A decision isn’t expected until next year.
Torsten Ove: email@example.com or 412-263-1510. First Published December 3, 2014 3:10 PM