City officials in Madison, Wisconsin have “tweaked” a far-reaching new buffer-zone law designed to keep demonstrators far away from health care facilities, but abortion opponents vow to proceed with their lawsuit to block the law.
The battle is one of a number playing out across the country as both sides await a Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of such exclusion zones.
The Madison law illegally suppresses all kinds of free speech, said Matthew S. Bowman, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom who represents Madison Vigil for Life, Students for Life Madison and Badger Catholics in a lawsuit against the ordinance.
Madison city leaders have “created scores, if not hundreds, of anti-leafletting bubbles all over Madison” — not just around Planned Parenthood sites, but on campus and downtown, said Mr. Bowman. “Why? Because they want to suppress their political opponents.”
The law’s main sponsor, Alder Lisa Subeck, asked for the law to be reconsidered so she could make some “minor tweaks” in it, based on recommendations of Madison’s city attorney. Late Tuesday night, the city’s Common Council adopted her new version of the law without discussion or dissent.
Instead of creating 160-foot buffer zones around health care offices, the law now creates 100-foot buffer zones around facilities, plus 30-foot buffer zones around driveways or parking lot entrances. The zones affect any offices used by a licensed physician or nurse practitioner to perform medical treatment, including free-standing offices and those in multioffice buildings, but the legal and constitutional fight has centered squarely on abortion.
“Entrance” is defined as any doorway to those offices — which means that in many buildings, “the sandwich shop has a 100-foot anti-leafletting bubble around it,” said Mr. Bowman.
He and the pro-life clients say the law is unconstitutional because, within the buffer zones, people are forbidden to distribute a leaflet, display a sign, or engage in “oral protest, education or counseling” with someone without consent. Violators can be fined between $50 and $1,000.
Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge William M. Conley in the Western District of Wisconsin denied the plaintiffs’ request for a temporary injunction of the law.
Ms. Subeck said the law is needed to permit people to enter and exit health care facilities without obstruction. NARAL Pro-choice Wisconsin has praised the city council for standing up for “patient privacy and dignity.”
The federal Freedom to Access to Clinic Entrances Act criminalizes efforts to block traffic in and out of clinics, or to deface properties.
But a few states and cities have sought to provide extra protection for abortion-clinic employees and patients by adding no-protest “buffer” zones around facilities and “floating” zones around people walking to or from the clinics. Currently in New Hampshire, state senators have passed a bill to create a 25-foot buffer zone around reproductive health clinics; the bill is before the state’s House of Representatives, where it is expected to pass.
In January, pro-life activists, led by Eleanor McCullen, 77, asked the Supreme Court to overturn a Massachusetts law that creates a clearly marked, 35-foot buffer zone around the doorways of abortion clinics. Ms. McCullen said the law forces her to stop at an arbitrary, government-imposed line in the pavement, even when she is in a consensual conversation with someone. This violates her constitutional rights, Ms. McCullen said.
Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley countered that the 2007 law is legal and ended confrontations around the abortion clinics.
A ruling is expected by June.