City mulls request for buffer zone around abortion clinics
Published: Sunday, February 3, 2013 at 4:56 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, February 3, 2013 at 4:56 p.m.
Last Wednesday afternoon, Jazmin Cuesta knelt on a thin strip of grass along Northwest 10th Avenue and prayed.
Two days a week for the last year, Cuesta, an abortion opponent, has been among the demonstrators who come to the sidewalk and public right of way in front of the Bread & Roses Women's Health Center.
On this day, there were four people — a typical size, according to Cuesta. She said she spends most of her time in prayer but, when possible, she does approach women walking to the clinic and urges them to reconsider having an abortion.
“Most of the time is spent in silent prayer,” Cuesta said. “We're not breaking any rules. We're not breaking any ordinance. We're peaceful.”
The management of Bread & Roses sees things differently. In an email sent to the mayor and city commissioners last September, Kristin Davy, the clinic's director, spoke of “aggressive protesters, who bully our clients and harass people coming into and leaving” the business.
In an interview, she said protesters standing on the sidewalk near the business' driveway or the street cause safety issues with traffic. She also raised concerns about some protesters taking photographs of people and vehicles going to and from the clinic.
Against this backdrop, a First Amendment battle may be looming in Gainesville.
At its center is a request from the management of Bread & Roses to the City Commission to establish a buffer zone keeping demonstrators farther back from the clinic's property line and to establish what is known as a “bubble” zone preventing protesters from approaching people entering the clinic.
“We want to alleviate the safety issue and ensure privacy,” Davy said.
A proposed model ordinance that Bread & Roses submitted to the city would forbid protesters on the public right of way or on a sidewalk within a 35-foot radius of the entrance, exit or driveway of a “reproductive health care facility.”
Within 100 feet of the entrance, it also would be illegal to approach within eight feet of a person entering the clinic, including those in vehicles, without their consent “for the purpose of counseling, harassing or interfering” or “injuring or intimidating.”
The City Commission's Public Safety Committee, which is composed of Commissioners Todd Chase, Yvonne Hinson-Rawls and Lauren Poe, discussed the buffer request at its Jan. 8 meeting. Their plan is to revisit the issue and discuss it further at their next meeting before it goes to the full City Commission.
The Gainesville Police Department and the City Attorney's Office have recommended against the city establishing a buffer zone.
In a Jan. 2 memo to City Manager Russ Blackburn, Police Chief Tony Jones said that the last police report for a disturbance at Bread & Roses is from June 2005. Jones said that buffer zones established by state legislatures, “although fraught with inherent controversy, protect the counties and municipalities from the intrinsic legal liabilities that normally accompany this polarizing subject matter.”
Local buffer zones have escalated tensions in some cases, according to Jones. Abortion protesters have moved on to a “taunting of area law enforcement” that leads to multiple arrests and lengthy legal battles, Jones said in the memo.
At the Jan. 8 committee meeting, Assistant City Attorney Stephanie Marchman said court decisions on the legality of buffer zones focus on whether they are content-based restrictions on speech and whether they are narrowly crafted to address a “public health, welfare and safety issue” or, conversely, overly broad.
With one police report since 2005, Marchman said, “It doesn't sound like we have a record of problems that would support this type of regulation.”
She noted that a Pittsburgh ordinance with a buffer zone from the property line and a “bubble” zone around someone walking toward the entrance was ruled overly broad and the city was on the hook for attorneys' fees. In that case, the court ordered the city to go either with a buffer zone or a bubble zone, Marchman said.
A federal court also ruled that a West Palm Beach ordinance “impermissibly restricts protected speech” with a buffer zone that “exceeds any distance approved by a Supreme Court in such a context.”
That case involved a sound-protection zone and a buffer zone of 20 feet from the clinic's driveway and property line. It was approved by the West Palm City Commission after an arson at an abortion clinic.
On the other hand, a federal court upheld a Colorado law that prohibited protesters within 100 feet of a clinic's entrance from approaching anyone going to enter the clinic without their consent.
The Public Safety Committee has asked Bread & Roses to present more evidence regarding issues with protesters. The panel plans to continue discussions on a buffer zone to bring a recommendation to the full City Commission.
“I think what we have is a lack of documentation, not a lack of reasonable cause to regulate,” Poe said.
Chase, on the other hand, said the protests are a form of protected speech and the push for a buffer zone may backfire and “create a much worse situation than we already have.”
Mayor Craig Lowe spoke in support of considering the establishment of some form of buffer zone.
“I do believe that, in order to ensure the rights of women to access legal medical services and to ensure the rights of those who are expressing themselves and to ensure the public safety, a buffer zone may be appropriate,” Lowe said.
On the sidewalk in front of Bread & Roses, abortion protester Andrew Scholberg, who was once arrested for violation of a Chicago buffer zone, offered a different perspective.
“It's about limiting our free speech to discourage us from coming here to pray,” he said. “America is a free speech zone.”
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