Amid a documented rise in targeted harassment of patients and doctors, anti-choice activists have been aggressively trying to knock down the Pittsburgh buffer zone. In 2015, “pro-life” protesters sued the city of Pittsburgh, claiming the city’s 15-foot statutory buffer zone, passed in 2005, unconstitutionally violated protesters’ right to free speech.
It does not, per yesterday’s ruling by Judge Cathy Bissoon of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania.
“We are so pleased with the ruling in Bruni v. City of Pittsburgh,” says WLP Senior Staff Attorney Susan Frietsche. “The buffer zone is a common-sense ordinance that respects protesters’ right to demonstrate, but also gives doctors and patients a small piece of the sidewalk where they can be safe. We’re very grateful to the City of Pittsburgh for defending this ordinance and standing up for women’s health and safety.”
Women’s Law Project represented Planned Parenthood staff and volunteer clinic escorts, who were witnesses in this case.
“We are relieved,” says Kim Evert, President of Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania. “This ruling preserves our buffer zone which has been so important in protecting people’s ability to access our healthcare services freely and without intimidation.”
Anti-choice harassment has been spiking in tandem with efforts to knock down buffer zones. Last year, nearly half of all abortion providers in the country (49.5%) experienced some form of severe violence, threats of violence and harassment in 2016, up from 43.3% in 2014.
“Buffer zones are important not only to protect patients, but also to make sure that providers entering and exiting clinics are safe,” says attorney David S. Cohen, WLP board member, professor at the Thomas R. Kline School of Law at Drexel University, and co-author of Living in the Crosshairs: The Untold Stories of Anti-Abortion Terrorism. “Today’s decision allows Pittsburgh to continue to send the message that both women’s reproductive rights and providers’ right to be free from threats and abuse are essential.”
Download or read the summary judgment ruling here.
Background: The city of Pittsburgh adopted a 15-foot buffer zone ordinance in 2005. At the City Council hearing to assess the need for a buffer zone, Evert testified that between February and November 2005, “there were 13 cases of aggressive pushing, shoving and hitting, and 30 complaints of harassing behavior that included shoving literature into people’s pockets, hitting them with signs and blocking their entrance to the building.”
Pittsburgh police testified they were dispatched 22 times in just the six months prior to the hearing, and asserted a buffer zone, having “clearly defined” parameters, would be more effective at ensuring access to clinic entrances than enforcing existing laws.
Plaintiffs, including Nikki Bruni, an organizer of “40 Days for Life,” a campaign that calls for gathering anti-choice activists to protest outside of healthcare facilities that provide abortion for 40 days in a row every year, failed to cite an instance where patients or doctors were unable to hear them shouting from behind the buffer zone. In fact, Bruni admitted she had no evidence that the buffer zone impeded her from talking with willing listeners at all.
In 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States issued its decision in McCullen v Coakley, striking down a 35-foot state statutory buffer zone in Massachusetts as insufficiently narrowly tailored to balance the first-amendment rights of the protesters with the civil rights of patients, doctors and staff.
Plaintiffs challenged the Pittsburgh buffer zone three months later, claiming that it too was unconstitutional. But Judge Bissoon determined that the two laws were substantially different, and noted that “unlike in [the Massachusetts case], there is undisputed evidence in this case that [protesters] are able to communicate their anti-abortion message using their preferred form of expression.”
It is unknown at this time whether the plaintiffs plan to appeal this ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
For more information or to request an interview with a WLP attorney, contact Tara Murtha at firstname.lastname@example.org or 215.928.5762.
Founded in 1974, the Women’s Law Project is a public interest legal organization devoted to advancing and protecting the rights of women and girls.