City Commission committee unlikely to recommend protester buffer zone around abortion clinics

Published: Wednesday, April 10, 2013 at 5:50 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, April 10, 2013 at 5:50 p.m.

Citing their attorneys' advice and the possibility of a long and losing legal battle, a Gainesville City Commission committee appears unlikely to recommend in favor of establishing buffer zones around abortion clinics.

On Tuesday, the three-member Public Safety Committee held the latest round of discussion and deliberations on the request from the Bread and Roses clinic on Northwest 10th Avenue.

A rarity for a City Commission committee meeting, a crowd in the range of 50 to 60, including a large group of anti-abortion activists, attended.

Because of the size of the audience, the meeting was moved from the basement of City Hall to the commission chambers.

Committee member Lauren Poe said he felt there was a problem with protesters outside Bread and Roses intimidating or harassing clients. But Poe added that the advice from the City Attorney's Office, based on earlier court cases, was that “we have no grounds to enact a bubble or buffer zone, which is unfortunate.”

A buffer zone would push protesters farther back on the public right of- way and sidewalks from the property line of a medical clinic that performs abortions.

A bubble zone, which was also part of the request, would prohibit protesters from approaching within a set number of feet people entering the clinic.

While all three commissioners on the committee said they were unlikely to support a buffer zone ordinance at this point, they decided to discuss the issue again next month.

In groups ranging in size from a handful to upwards of a dozen, protestors and demonstrators gather on the sidewalk and grassy right of way outside Bread and Roses on Wednesdays and Fridays.

Some hold rosary beads and pray. At Tuesday's meeting, one protester, Jazmin Cuesta, said she attempts to speak to the women heading to the clinic to “counsel” them that they have options besides an abortion.

Kristin Davy, the director of Bread and Roses, said there have been issues with trespassing on the property and expressed frustration with the Gainesville Police Department's handling of those situations.

In response, a department representative said an officer has to see an individual on a property firsthand to make a trespassing arrest.

Davy also raised traffic safety issues. She said protesters sometimes interfere with the line of sight for vehicles entering and exiting the business's driveway. Drivers sometimes stop their vehicles in the road to talk with demonstrators, Davy added.

She also told committee members that some protesters have video recorded the people and vehicles coming and going at the clinic.

“So the right to protest is more important than the right to privacy?” Davy questioned during Tuesday's meeting.

In a January meeting and again this week, the city's attorneys said courts view the buffer zones requested as potential restrictions on free speech that have to be narrowly tailored to protect health, safety and welfare in order to withstand a legal challenge. Courts have been more apt to strike down city laws than state laws or injunctions, Senior Assistant City Attorney Stephanie Marchman said.

With only a handful of police reports over the years, the city's attorneys have said they did not feel a Gainesville ordinance would withstand a legal challenge.

Their research noted that a federal court 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 ordinance was approved after an arson at an abortion clinic.

While there was a large crowd at Tuesday's meeting, few people spoke. Anti-abortion protester Andrew Scholberg compared abortion providers to “pornographers and pimps” during comments that received a round of applause from the audience.

At one point, Commissioner Yvonne Hinson-Rawls, the chair of the Public Safety Committee, told Davy, the Bread and Roses director, there was “only so far we can go to protect you and annihilate other people's rights.”

Hinson-Rawls also told Cuesta, the protester who said she attempts to persuade women going to the clinic to reconsider, that it would be more appropriate to start a business and offer such counseling there.

Commissioner Todd Chase then took issue with Hinson-Rawls' comments, saying Cuesta was exercising her right to peaceful protest.

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