Planned Parenthood, critics in dispute over 'escalation' of Portland protests
PORTLAND — About a month before City Councilors may consider new regulations on protests outside the offices of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, clinic spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said intimidation of clients is increasing.
“The loss of the city’s buffer zone was felt keenly this past week when dozens of protesters descended upon our health center with the intent to intimidate and harass our patients,” Clegg charged in an Aug. 14 email.
On Friday, Aug. 15, activists who have protested outside the offices at 439 Congress St. on Fridays and some Saturdays for more than two years said the "escalation" Clegg claims occurred only after members attending the Gospel For New England Conference Aug. 7-9 joined the protests.
"We are not being more aggressive," Shapleigh resident Allison Hebert said as she stood near the curb at the entrance to the offices, holding her infant son.
Along the wall of the office building housing Planned Parenthood were city Police Officer Jeffrey Ruth and volunteer greeters from Planned Parenthood.
About 15 feet away from Hebert, Penny Drew, also of Shapleigh, held a hand-lettered sign that said "Babies are being murdered here right now! Please pray!"
Drew said some conference members made "lewd gestures," but most of them stood at the edge of Monument Square, not in front of 439 Congress St.
Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said the police presence has been paid for by Planned Parenthood since City Councilors repealed a 39-foot buffer zone on July 7.
The repeal came about a week after the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck down a similar Massachusetts buffer law on the grounds it violated protesters' First Amendment rights.
"(Aug. 8 and 9) were busy days for us, in that the overtime officer there did have to deal with a larger group," Sauschuck said.
An officer warned one person about blocking access to the building, and warned the larger group about possible civil rights law violations because the protests could be heard inside Planned Parenthood. No citations or complaints were forwarded to the Cumberland County district attorney's Office or the Maine attorney general, Sauschuck said.
Drew and Hebert were joined by another activist in front of the building on Aug. 15, while about a dozen more protesters remained across the street. Drew held out her sign almost in front of Ruth's parked cruiser. Hebert approached people with pamphlets as they entered and left the building, getting mixed results.
Both said being allowed in front of the building gave them a better chance to speak with patients. Drew said a direct message about abortion needed to be delivered.
"We try to call them to repent this," she said. "Being graphic and being honest is loving, in our opinion."
When councilors voted 7-1, with Councilor Jill Duson opposed, to repeal the buffer zone on July 7, they also vowed the council's Public Safety, Health & Human Services Committee, with Councilor Ed Suslovic as chairman, would draft new measures designed to prevent harassment of Planned Parenthood patients.
On Tuesday, Suslovic said city attorney Trish McAllister is drafting a memo with possible options for a new buffer zone for consideration at the committee's September meeting.
The committee will not accept public comment next month, but Suslovic said the intent is to have a possible ordinance ready for public comment and committee consideration in October.
"We really careful to operate within the playing field the Supreme Court left for us," Suslovic said.
While the city repealed the buffer zone, a lawsuit filed against the City Council and Mayor Michael Brennan in U.S. District Court in Portland has not been dismissed.
Plaintiffs Daniel and Marguerite Fitzgerald, two of their children, all of Shapleigh, and Richmond resident Leslie Sneddon sought to overturn the city ordinance on grounds it violated their First and 14th Amendment rights. Now they seek "nominal" damages, while city attorneys argue the plaintiffs suffered no harm.
Drew and Hebert did say activists have videotaped people going into Planned Parenthood, but Drew said that is done to show their approach is not harassment.
"We get accused of things," Drew said. "We have people who come up and yell at us."
Clegg took a different view.
"Since (the buffer zone) repeal, the atmosphere has returned to one of routine harassment, bullying and intimidation of patients and pedestrians alike," she said.
Mike Fink, owner of Guitar Grave at 441 Congress St., said the return of protests to his side of Congress Street has not been as disruptive as previous protests he blamed for a loss of business at his former diner on the street.
"They don't have the gauntlet they used to have that was so offensive," he said. "I try to ignore them, mostly.
Hebert said the activists are not going anywhere, even if a new ordinance is passed.
"I think no matter what, we are going to be out here," she said.