10-Foot Buffer Zones Around Abortion Clinics ‘Likely Violate’ Free Speech Rights, Federal Court Rules

A Bush-appointed judge wrote that protective zones are unfair because they prevent protesters from engaging in “close, personal conversations" with patients.

10-Foot Buffer Zones Around Abortion Clinics ‘Likely Violate’ Free Speech Rights, Federal Court Rules
Photo:Jon Cherry (Getty Images)

A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that the ordinance mandating 10-foot buffer zones around Louisville, Ky., medical facilities to protect patients from protesters “likely violate the First Amendment” and is unenforceable—for now. The ordinance basically only applies to the only abortion clinic in Louisville, EMW Women’s Surgical Center.

The Louisville ordinance makes it illegal to linger or obstruct the buffer zone or stop someone from trying to enter or exit any medical facility. The case was brought by Sisters for Life and the Kentucky Right to Life Association, as well as two anti-abortion activists, before Roe v. Wade was overturned. (A note: As anti-trans protests have been on the rise across the country, I think it’s reasonable to assume any healthcare facility that provides trans healthcare in Louisville could eventually need such an ordinance.)

The opinion authored by 6th Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Jeffrey S. Sutton says the ordinance, which passed in May 2021, creates a limitation on free speech because the city does not plan to enforce the ordinance against the clinic escorts that are helping patients into the facility. Sutton, who was first nominated to his lifetime seat by President George W. Bush, wrote that clinic escorts “discussed abortion-related topics in the buffer zone in non-neutral ways.”

Sutton’s opinion is deeply sympathetic to the plaintiffs and reveals heavy anti-abortion bias. “Keep in mind, moreover, that the goal of the plaintiffs is not to harass or protest, whether loudly or violently. The point of their speech is to offer a compassionate ear,” Sutton wrote in his opinion. “To this day, it remains unclear why the County has sought to suppress their speech along with those types of protests that are far more likely to hinder access to a clinic and are sometimes designed to do just that.”

According to Sutton, the anti-abortion groups’ work to harass and demean patients trying to enter a medical clinic is “compassionate, if sometimes unwelcome, speech.” He wrote that the ordinance has taken a “toll” on the anti-abortion activists attempting to dissuade people from having an abortion. It’s harder to distribute their anti-abortion pamphlets, and they’re too far away from people to engage in “close, personal conversations.” One of the case’s plaintiffs says she previously convinced “three to six” people each month to not have an abortion, but has convinced “none” since its passage. How bleak for her, and how refreshing for the people attempting to make it to their medical appointments.

“Sisters for Life faces irreparable harm” by the continued use of a buffer zone that impedes their First Amendment freedoms, Sutton wrote. Missing from Sutton’s legal reasoning is real reckoning with the violence faced at EMW Women’s Surgical Center and abortion centers around the country. On the same day Roe v. Wade was overturned, the National Abortion Federation released its annual study on clinic violence.

The numbers were horrifying, even taking into account of under-reporting due to pandemic-related closures: There was a 600 percent increase of in-person stalking incidents. There was a 450 percent increase in physical blockades. There was a 129 percent in clinic invasions, and 128 percent increase in assault and battery of staff.

Violence against abortion providers is on the rise. Abortion rights activists around the country were brutalized by police just after the fall of Roe when they wanted to exercise their constitutional right to protest and let people power know they’re fed up! A Planned Parenthood building—thankfully unoccupied—was literally burned to the ground last year. (The primary suspect is a man who attended January 6th insurrection but is now dead.)

One city has tried to hold back violence from both the medical professionals and medical patients at one facility. Now that work is on hold. The case may be appealed to a higher court, but everyone reading this website knows the makeup of the Supreme Court and the damage they are capable of wreaking.

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