U.S. Supreme Court ruling threatens Portland buffer zone

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PORTLAND — Waterboro resident Donna Hebert stood on a Congress Street sidewalk Friday morning, one of about 10 anti-abortion activists hoping to engage with women going into the Planned Parenthood of New England offices across the street.

“People come and talk with us, and we talk about the Lord and share the gospel,” she said.

Across the street, about 25 feet from the entrance to Planned Parenthood at 433 Congress St., a woman fidgeted, smoked a cigarette down to its filter, and fumed about the activists. Sara, who declined to give her last name because she worried about an abusive ex-boyfriend, said she has had an abortion.

“They don’t understand what people go through,” she said of the demonstrators.

The activists are required by a city ordinance enacted last November to stay 39 feet from the Planned Parenthood entrance. But they may soon be allowed to cross the street and again stand in spaces they occupied each Friday for about 15 months before the ordinance became law.

The Portland ordinance, passed unanimously and enacted on an emergency basis, is patterned on a Massachusetts law struck down June 26 by a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision.

The city ordinance is being challenged in U.S. District Court in Portland by Daniel and Marguerite Fitzgerald of Shapleigh, two of their children, and Richmond resident Leslie Sneddon.

The plaintiffs claim the buffer zone violates their First and 14th Amendment rights. One June 18, Judge Nancy Torreson declined to strike down the ordinance, citing the pending Supreme Court decision in the Massachusetts case, McCullen v. Coakley.

Erin Kuenzig, an attorney from the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Thomas More Law Center, represents the plaintiffs. She is seeking an injunction from Torreson to strike down the ordinance, based on the U.S. Supreme Court decision.

“The decision sends the clear message that the government may not take the extreme step of closing a substantial portion of a public sidewalk to all speakers simply because this extreme step is easier than enforcing other laws that already exist to achieve the government’s interest,” Kuenzig said in an email.

On Friday, Hebert’s daughter, Allison Hebert, stood across the street from Planned Parenthood, holding her infant son, Nathan.

“It’s in God’s hands, we are waiting to see what happens,” she said. “We are just out here to witness to people.”

In the U.S. Supreme Court majority opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the requirement in Massachusetts for a 35-foot buffer zone around health care centers performing abortions (excluding hospitals) was found to violate activists’ rights to counsel patients outside a health-care center.

City spokeswoman Jessica Grondin on Thursday said the Portland ordinance remains in effect for now, but will be studied.

“We need to conduct a review of the Supreme Court’s ruling to examine how it will apply to our buffer zone ordinance here in Portland,” Grondin said. “In regards to our pending legal case, we will wait to hear from the Court to see what the next steps are.”

Planned Parenthood of Northern New England spokeswoman Nicole Clegg, meanwhile, expressed dismay at the decision.

“The U.S. Supreme Court Justices’ decision today to strike down the buffer zone law shows a disregard for the safety of patients and staff entering reproductive health centers and we are disappointed by their decision to strike down the Massachusetts law,” Clegg said in a press release.

In his majority opinion Roberts noted Massachusetts plaintiff Ellen McCullen does “’sidewalk counseling,’ which involves offering information about alternatives to abortion and help pursuing those options.”

Donna Hebert said she wants to do the same while asking women about “making the choice to murder the child in her womb.”

The stark terms are necessary, she said.

“It is the truth, and being confronted with the truth is hard,” she said.

Greeters who escort patients to Planned Parenthood declined comment, but Sara was adamant the anti-abortion activists are not offering counseling.

“They don’t sit down and talk to people about decisions,” she said. ” … It killed me, it kills me everyday. There is logic and reason behind (abortion) for most women.”

City councilors created the buffer zone after complaints about anti-abortionist activists harassing Planned Parenthood patients and customers at a diner on the first floor of the building.

Diner owner Mike Fink, who also owns Guitar Grave, next to the entrance to Planned Parenthood, blamed the demonstrations when he closed the diner about a year ago. Planned Parenthood said its surveys showed more than 70 percent of patients felt “harassed” by the activists.

Roberts upheld the right of activists to use public ways in his opinion.

“It is no accident that public streets and sidewalks have developed as venues for the exchange of ideas,” he said. “Even today, they remain one of the few places where a speaker can be confident that he is not simply preaching to the choir.”

Roberts suggested there are ways to remedy the harassment buffer zone supporters said patients have endured.

“While (Massachusetts) contends that individuals can inadvertently obstruct access to clinics simply by gathering in large numbers, that problem could be addressed through a law requiring crowds blocking a clinic entrance to disperse for a limited period when ordered to do so by the police,” the chief justice said.

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

Sidebar Elements

Anti-abortion activist Donna Hebert, left, chats with Cha Cha Canady on Congress Street on Friday morning at the edge of the buffer zone created around the entrance across the street to Planned Parenthood of New England. Similar buffer zones in Massachusetts were struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 26.

On June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled buffer zones in Massachusetts, similar to this one outside 443 Congress St. in Portland, violated anti-abortion activists’ First Amendment rights. A legal challenge to the Portland ordinance could soon be heard again in U.S. District Court in Portland.

Greeters outside Planned Parenthood of New England at 443 Congress St. declined comment Friday, June 27, but anti-abortion activist Allison Hebert, right, said she hopes the group will soon be allowed back across the street. “We are here to witness to people,” she said.

Leslie Sneddon, left, makes a point at an anti-abortion protest outside a Planned Parenthood clinic at 443 Congress St. in downtown Portland last August, while an off-duty police officer and Planned Parenthood “greeters” make sure the clinic entrance is accessible to clients. Sneddon is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the buffer zone established around the office by the city.

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.