Abortion clinic buffer zone challenged
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U.S. District Judge Nora Barry Fischer heard arguments yesterday on a challenge to a Pittsburgh ordinance requiring protesters at abortion clinics to stay at least 8 feet from patients.
Mary Kathryn Brown, of Indiana Township, filed a lawsuit against the city, the late Mayor Bob O'Connor and individual City Council members in March 2006, three months after the ordinance took effect.
She claims that the requirements -- an 8-foot buffer from people approaching medical facilities as well as a 15-foot buffer from center entrances -- violate her rights of free speech and religious freedom.
She was represented at yesterday's hearing by David Cortman, an attorney based in Lawrenceville, Ga., who works for the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian nonprofit organization.
The challenge to the ordinance is filed only on Ms. Brown's behalf and would not affect the public as a whole. She has asked for a preliminary injunction which would allow her to continue her peaceful, non-violent protests at clinics Downtown and in East Liberty.
The way she spreads her message against abortion, Mr. Cortman said, is by approaching patients as they enter the clinics. She talks to them, he said, and tells them she understands what's happening and that she can help them.
"She does so caringly, peacefully, non-violently," he said.
But the city passed the ordinance to protect patients who they said were being harassed as they entered the clinics.
"This is an area where the city saw a need to protect the citizens at these health care facilities," said city attorney Michael Kennedy.
"There's no constitutional right to gently counsel," added another city attorney, Yvonne Schlosberg Hilton.
Mr. Cortman argued that the ordinance violates Ms. Brown's free-speech rights because it prohibits her from reaching her intended audience.
But Judge Fischer, who asked a number of questions of both sides during the nearly three-hour hearing, asked, "Don't they also have the right to their own privacy in seeking out needed treatment? Don't I have the right to go about my own business?"
Mr. Cortman responded: "There is no right to privacy on a public sidewalk."
He also said the ordinance is being selectively enforced, because clinic workers aren't prohibited from talking to patients as they approach. He also noted that Ms. Brown was permitted to pass out anti-pornography literature, but not anti-abortion fliers.
"I could write this law without infringing on anyone's rights," Mr. Cortman said.
He told Judge Fischer that he wouldn't object to a more narrowly tailored ordinance that specified that a protester couldn't harass, intimidate or threaten. But, he went on, the city has not been receptive to the idea.
"Harassment and intimidation are far more difficult to define," Mr. Kennedy responded.
Judge Fischer did not give any indication when she might decide the issue.
"We would like a ruling immediately," Mr. Cortman said. "Every day that goes by, our client's rights are being violated."
Ms. Brown has been going to the clinics to protest for 15 years, and though she has continued since the passage of the ordinance, her message no longer has the same impact, Mr. Cortman said.
By requiring the 8-foot bubble around patients at the clinics, it's impossible for her to have any intimate conversation with them, he said.
"The noise is so loud with rush-hour traffic and buses, it's impossible to be heard," he said. "No one has come and taken a flier out of her hand."
First Published December 20, 2007 12:00 am