Share This Page

Lawsuit challenges Pittsburgh's buffer zone around abortion clinics

| Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014, 3:55 p.m.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh’s ordinance regulating protests around abortion clinics is as unconstitutional as a Massachusetts law the Supreme Court struck down in June, five local activists claim in a federal lawsuit filed on Thursday.

Pittsburgh's ordinance regulating protests around abortion clinics is as unconstitutional as a Massachusetts law the Supreme Court struck down in June, five local activists claim in a federal lawsuit filed on Thursday.

Lawrence Paladin, the attorney for the plaintiffs, also was one of the lawyers who challenged Pittsburgh's ordinance in 2006. That case ended with U.S. District Judge Nora Barry Fischer telling the city in 2009 that it had to choose between keeping either a 15-foot buffer zone around entrances to clinics or an 8-foot “bubble” zone around people entering the clinics.

“As things worked out, they kept the buffer zone,” Paladin said. With the Supreme Court striking down the Massachusetts law, “we're now challenging the buffer zone around the door.”

Eleanor McCullen, an anti-abortion activist, brought the Massachusetts case. She argued that the state's 35-foot buffer zones violated her First Amendment right to peacefully counsel women seeking abortions.

Massachusetts said the law protected a constitutional right to obtain an abortion free from mental or physical harassment.

The difference in the two buffers' distance could be crucial in the local challenge, said Arthur Hellman, a University of Pittsburgh law professor.

The Supreme Court ruling is based on whether anti-abortion counselors can have one-on-one conversations with women entering the clinic. The city can argue that 15 feet does not prevent those conversations, Hellman said. The plaintiffs can argue that it does.

“I think there's a solid argument (for the plaintiffs), but whether the argument will ultimately prevail will require a very close look,” he said.

The people suing the city, City Council and Mayor Bill Peduto are Nikki Bruni of Verona, Julie Consentino of Bridgeville, Cynthia Rinaldi of Coraopolis, Kathleen Laslow of Pittsburgh and Patrick Malley of Trafford. All regularly stand outside Planned Parenthood on Liberty Avenue, Downtown, and try to talk to the women entering the clinic, the lawsuit says.

The city is reviewing the lawsuit and has no further comment, said Timothy McNulty, the mayor's spokesman. City Solicitor Lourdes Sanchez Ridge could not be reached for comment.

The case comes down to the right of people to be heard, Paladin said.

“It's all a matter to have access to talk,” he said. “We're not talking about blocking doors. We're not talking about blocking access.”

Pittsburgh's buffer zone has allowed protesters to make their points while protecting the safety of patients and staff at Planned Parenthood's clinic, said spokeswoman Aleigha Cavalier.

“Women should be able to make their own ... private medical decisions without judgments from strangers and abusive and sometimes physically aggressive protesters,” she said.

Protesters gather outside the clinic at least a couple of times a week. Usually there are about a half dozen, but sometimes the number approaches 100, Cavalier said.

“Since the buffer zone was enacted, we've had to call local authorities much less,” she said.

If a judge strikes down the city's ordinance, it would have other options to keep the peace around clinics and hospitals that offer abortion services.

Massachusetts' new law allows peaceful protests at any distance but allows police to cite anyone who attempts to prevent people from entering the clinic. The person cited has to remain at least 25 feet away from the entrance for the rest of the day or face a $500 fine and up to three months in jail.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.