Protesters Still Fighting to Knock Down Pittsburgh Buffer Zone

As reports of targeted harassment of abortion providers spike in the wake of failed propaganda videos released last year, anti-abortion advocates are continuing efforts to chisel away protective spaces outside of healthcare facilities designed to help shield patients and staff from harassment and intimidation.

Protesters gather outside a Planned Parenthood in Pittsburgh.

Protesters gather outside a Planned Parenthood in Pittsburgh.

Immediately after McCullen v. Coakley, a Supreme Court ruling that struck down the 35-foot buffer zone established by the Massachusetts Reproductive Health Care Facilities Act as insufficiently narrowly tailored, the same organization that brought that case filed a lawsuit against the city of Pittsburgh. They claimed the Pittsburgh buffer zone prevented anti-choice protesters from “sidewalk counseling” patients entering the Planned Parenthood health center on Liberty Avenue.

Last year, a federal judge upheld the constitutionality of the 15-foot buffer zone ordinance.

Yesterday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit issued a lengthy ruling affirming in part, and reversing in part, a district court order that dismissed a constitutional challenge to the Pittsburgh buffer zone ordinance. The ruling is procedural, and does not reflect on the merits of Pittsburgh’s buffer zone.

In short, the appeals court ruled that the district court dismissed some of the plaintiff-protesters’ claims at too early a stage in the litigation, before the parties could develop a full factual record.

The case, Bruni v. City of Pittsburgh, centers on the question of the constitutionality of Pittsburgh’s 15-foot fixed buffer zone ordinance, which was adopted in 2006 after other methods of protecting public safety and securing unobstructed access to Pittsburgh’s reproductive health care facilities proved ineffective.

Matthew McHale, a lawyer for Pittsburgh, said in a statement, “There will be other opportunities for the city to prove the ordinance should be upheld as constitutional.”

Last year, the Women’s Law Project filed an amici brief arguing that the Pittsburgh buffer zone successfully strikes the right balance between protecting patients’ safety and protester’s speech to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit on behalf of Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania and Pittsburgh Pro-Choice Escorts.

“Women deserve safe dignified access to abortion care, and the buffer zone facilitates that with a de minimis impact on the protesters’ speech,” said Susan Frietsche, Senior Staff Attorney at the Women’s Law Project.

The Pittsburgh buffer zone will be enforced pending further developments in the Bruni litigation.


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