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Lawsuit challenges Pittsburgh's buffer zone around abortion clinics

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.

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Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014, 3:51 p.m.

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

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