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Portland weighs 'buffer zone' around Congress St. clinic

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Portland weighs 'buffer zone' around Congress St. clinic

PORTLAND — The controversy over a Planned Parenthood clinic that performs abortions reached a new pitch at a July 30 City Council committee meeting.

A crowd of about 120 jammed the City Hall Council Chambers as the Public Safety, Health and Human Services committee discussed a proposed "buffer zone" that would ban protesters from within 35 feet of the clinic at 443 Congress St.

For more than a year, a couple dozen protesters have stood outside the clinic doors each Friday morning, carrying graphic signs, praying, and sometimes harassing and intimidating patients who enter the clinic. Recently, the protests have occurred on Saturdays, too.

Police Chief Michael Sauschuck told the committee there have been no arrests at the protests.

"But just because there's no criminal activity doesn't mean (the protests) aren't perceived as threatening," Councilor Ed Suslovic, who chairs the committee, said.

In an interview Monday, Suslovic said the creation of a 35-foot "patient safety zone" will require careful study, because it's certain to provoke strong opposition.

Across the country, similar buffer zones have been challenged on the grounds that they violate the First Amendment right to free speech and assembly. While many buffer-zone laws have been legally upheld, the U.S. Supreme Court recently agreed to consider the constitutionality of a 2007 Massachusetts law that, like the Portland proposal, bans protesters within 35 feet of abortion facilities.

But proponents of the zones say they're necessary to protect patients' safety and ability to obtain abortion services.

"No person should have to undergo harassment simply to access health care," Eric Covey, an organizer for Planned Parenthood in Maine, said.

He said Planned Parenthood has surveyed more than 170 patients since November, and that the "vast majority" of them have been been intimidated or made to feel uncomfortable by the protesters.

The protests have even provoked counter-protests and convinced a nearby business owner, Mike Fink, to close his Congress Street restaurant.

Suslovic said he is worried about such "unintended consequences."

For example, a buffer zone and the subsequent legal challenges could attract even more attention to the clinic and "ratchet up the level of protesting and counter-protesting," he said. "(Then) you've got a a jostling mob scene."

Leslie Sneddon, one of the protest organizers with Pro-Life Mission of Maine, said her group would respond to a buffer zone by simply moving across the street or down the block.

"We would abide by the law, but we would not go away. Whether we're five feet (from the clinic) or 35 feet, our message would be the same," Sneddon said.

However, the protesters would also employ some new tactics.

"We'd carry larger signs. ... We would stake out different places, knowing who's likely going in for an abortion," she said. The protesters might shout in their attempts to communicate with patients, but wouldn't use bullhorns, Sneddon added.

It's unclear exactly where the protesters would move as a result of a buffer zone, although probable spots include Monument Square or the sidewalk across Congress Street, outside the office buildings at One and Two Monument Square.

Where the protesters go depends on the exact dimensions of a buffer zone, Suslovic said. "Is the (35-foot limit) going to be from the entire building? Is it from the entrance? These things aren't clear," he said.

He's asked city staff to work out those details, and to answer questions about how the city would respond to legal challenges. The committee will then review a proposed ordinance for the buffer zone in October, and then may take action, including recommending the ordinance to the full council for consideration.

"I feel we need to act with an abundance of caution," Suslovic said. "The more you look at this, the less black and white it is."

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or whall@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.