Judge rules noise violations against Portland abortion foes unconstitutional

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PORTLAND — A federal judge told city police Monday that officers will no longer be able to cite noise violations against anti-abortion protesters.

Judge Nancy Torreson of the U.S. District Court in Portland signed a preliminary injunction Monday in response to a suit brought by Pastor Andrew March of Lewiston. 

“This case presents the difficult question of whether a state law providing protection to women seeking access to constitutionally-protected health care violates the First Amendment rights of an individual who wishes to voice his opposition to abortion on a public sidewalk. I conclude that it does,” Torreson said.

Specifically, the injunction prohibits police from using the “noise provision” of the Maine Civil Rights Act against protesters gathered outside the offices of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England at 443 Congress St.

Police had warned protesters when staff and patients inside the offices could hear them, but Torreson noted police did not warn others who argued loudly with the protesters.

“Continued enforcement of a content-based restriction on speech would result in irreparable harm to the Plaintiff,” Torreson said.

March had sued Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, the city and four Portland police officers after he was required to lower his voice while preaching outside Planned Parenthood offices.

His suit was also brought because Brian Ingalls, a member of his Cell 53 congregation, has also been warned against shouting outside the offices. Ingalls was eventually sued by Mills for violations of the noise provision, which dates to 1995. The Maine Civil Rights Act was enacted in 1989.

In court documents, March said the warnings he received violated his Constitutional First and 14th Amendment rights because he was required to lower his voice to the point where it was drowned out by traffic and street noise.

The defendants argued the shouting that was audible inside PPNNE offices harmed staff and patients and interfered with providing care for patients.

Court documents indicate PPNNE staff would call police when at least two staff members inside the building could hear street protesters, and that shifting patients to offices farther away from the street also separated them “from people who are there to support them, as recovery areas are restricted to patients and staff.”

Torreson’s injunction marks the second time city efforts to control the volume and scope of protests outside Planned Parenthood have been turned aside. In 2014, an ordinance creating a 39-foot buffer zone outside the offices was repealed by the City Council.

The vote eliminating the ordinance came after the Supreme Court had unanimously struck down a similar ordinance in Massachusetts in the case of McCullen vs. Coakley. The ordinance was passed in fall 2013, and councilors have since been unable to craft regulations they feel could stand up to a court challenge.

The buffer zone ordinance restricting protesters to the other side of Congress Street was also challenged in federal court. The plaintiffs, Richmond resident Leslie Sneddon, and Daniel and Marguerite Fitzgerald of Shapleigh (who also named two of their children as plaintiffs), dropped the case. In October 2015, the city was ordered to pay $56,500 to cover legal costs for the plaintiffs.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

A federal judge ruled Monday that anti-abortion protesters outside the offices of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England at 443 Congress St. cannot be quieted through use of the “noise provision” of the Maine Civil Rights Act.

Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.