PORTLAND — A failed attempt to limit where anti-abortion activists could gather on Congress Street has become costly for the city.
An Oct. 8 agreement in U.S. District Court requires the city to pay $56,500 in legal fees to the five plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed in February 2014.
The agreement also requires the city to pay $1 per plaintiff “in recognition of Defendants’ violation of Plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights through the implementation and enforcement” of the ordinance passed unanimously by city councilors in November 2013.
The ordinance establishing a 39-foot buffer zone was challenged in U.S. District Court in Maine in February 2014 by Daniel and Marguerite Fitzgerald of Shapleigh, who also named two of their children as plaintiffs.
About a month later, Richmond resident Leslie Sneddon joined the suit. Mayor Michael Brennan and the City Council were named as defendants.
The suit argued the ordinance violated First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, upholding free speech and equal protection under the law, by requiring anti-abortion protesters to stay away from the doors leading to the Planned Parenthood of Northern New England offices at 443 Congress St.
Sneddon and the Fitzgeralds were among people who began picketing the PPNNE offices, typically on Friday mornings, in winter 2013. Included in the protests were graphic signs detailing abortion procedures, and actions by the protesters drew complaints from PPNNE patients, staff and businessman Mike Fink, who owned a nearby diner he eventually closed.
The buffer zone established in the ordinance pushed the protesters across Congress Street, where plaintiffs said they could not effectively counsel people about alternatives to abortion.
In June 2014, federal Judge Nancy Torreson refused to strike down the city ordinance because a decision on a similar Massachusetts law was expected from the U.S. Supreme Court. After Supreme Court justices unanimously ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in McCullen v. Coakley, Portland city councilors voided the local ordinance in July 2014.
Councilors vowed to craft an ordinance that could limit access by protesters without violating their rights, but nothing has been forwarded to the full council for consideration.
The failed buffer zone ordinance is the second recent city ordinance that did not withstand a legal challenge.
In September, U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals Judge David J. Barron upheld a decision by the U.S. District Court in Maine that struck down the city ordinance preventing loitering in city median strips.
The ordinance passed in July 2013 aimed to end panhandling at intersections by labeling it a safety hazard.
It was challenged in court by the Maine chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, representing plaintiffs Michael Cutting, Wells Staley-Mays and Allison Prior. In Feb. 2014, Judge George Singal ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, who argued their First Amendment rights were violated.
Maine ACLU Legal Director Zachary Heiden said Monday the the plaintiffs had not sought damages, but can seek “reasonable attorney fees and costs” from the city. A motion to recover costs has to be filed by Nov. 9.
Planned Parenthood volunteers and an anti-abortion activist stand outside PPNNE offices at 443 Congress St. in April. Earlier this month, the city was ordered to pay $56,500 in legal fees after a buffer zone law was voided.