Portland councilors ready to renew discussion on abortion-clinic buffer zone

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PORTLAND — A new discussion about a buffer zone outside Planned Parenthood of Northern New England will begin at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 9, at City Hall.

The City Council Public Safety, Health & Human Services Committee will hear from city attorney Trish McAllister on what might be done to limit contact between anti-abortion activists and patients of the clinic at 439 Congress St.

“I’ll just be letting the committee know what various options are, then they have to decide if this is the time to move forward or not,” McAllister said Tuesday.

The committee meeting is open to the public, but Councilor Ed Suslovic, its chairman, said last month no public comment will be accepted until the panel actually drafts an ordinance.

Last November, the council unanimously enacted a 39-foot buffer zone outside the offices that pushed anti-abortion activists across the street.

But in June, U.S. Supreme Court justices were unanimous in the opinion a Massachusetts buffer zone serving as the model for the Portland law was in violation of the First Amendment.

On July 7, less than two weeks after the Supreme Court decision, councilors voted 7-1 to repeal the buffer zone ordinance. Councilor Jill Duson opposed the repeal, and none of the councilors were happy.

“I want everyone to be assured we are not done with this situation,” Councilor Cheryl Leeman said. “This is a bump in the road. The issue for all of us is still on the table.”

The city ordinance was also challenged in U.S. District Court in Portland by Shapleigh residents Daniel and Marguerite Fitzgerald, two of their children, and Richmond resident Leslie Sneddon. The case, naming Mayor Michael Brennan and the City Council as defendants, remains open as the plaintiffs seek damages from the city.

McAllister’s challenge is navigating what she called a “bump in the road.”

“I wouldn’t call it difficult,” she said. “This is the job of a city attorney; listen to the City Council and advise them.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has taken a dim view of buffer zones, whether outside health-care facilities or to limit access of activists protesting gay rights at military funerals.

McAllister said a buffer that has withstood challenges was enacted in 1999 in Colorado, making it illegal for anyone within 100 feet of a health-care facility to get within 8 feet of someone to provide “sidewalk counseling.”

Such a restriction is content-neutral, McAllister said, but may be impractical on Congress Street.

“I really think, enforcability-wise, that it is probably not feasible,” she said.

McAllister will also review data from the Portland Police Department about the level of activity outside 439 Congress St., where activists have gathered on Friday mornings, and some Saturdays, for more than two years.

Since the ordinance was repealed, some protesters have come back across Congress Street to offer literature and counseling to people entering the building, and Planned Parenthood has paid for a uniformed, off-duty police officer to stand near the entrance.

Activity spiked around Aug. 8, in what Planned Parenthood spokeswoman Nicole Clegg called an “escalation” where “dozens of protesters descended upon our health center with the intent to intimidate and harass our patients.”

Activist Penny Drew, who has been protesting outside the building for more than two years, attributed the increased activity to the presence of people attending the Gospel For New England Conference.

On Aug. 15, Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said a couple of warnings were issued, one because a person blocked access to the building and one because demonstrations could be heard inside the Planned Parenthood offices, a possible violation of Maine civil rights laws.

No one was cited or prosecuted, and McAllister said the situation outside Planned Parenthood has recently remained essentially calm.

“The police have been really meticulous about keeping track hour by hour,” she said.

Drew and fellow activist Allison Hebert vowed the protests will continue, regardless of legal obstacles they may confront.

“I think no matter what,” she said, “we are going to be out here.”

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

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.