A new “buffer-zone” law protecting any medical facility in Wisconsin’s capital city is now in court, with pro-life groups suing to have it overturned as a violation of their free-speech rights against abortion.
Supporters of the new ordinance in Madison say massive protective areas are needed around every medical facility, whether it is tied to abortion or not, so women seeking abortions can walk to and from buildings without being harassed. But pro-life groups say their rights are violated when speech-restricting “bubble zones” are so big they encompass entire city blocks.
Plaintiffs with Madison Vigil for Life, Students for Life Madison and Badger Catholic filed their case in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin Thursday. They are asking the court to block the law and then strike it down. A hearing date was not yet set as of Friday, a court clerk said.
Separately, another case involving an abortion buffer-zone is waiting for a Supreme Court ruling.
In McCullen v. Coakley, pro-life activist Eleanor McCullen is suing Massachusetts officials for — literally — drawing lines in streets and sidewalks that are 35 feet from abortion clinic entrances. Ms. McCullen and other activists in the suit say they cannot cross these lines to speak to people going to or leaving a clinic, and their freedom to peacefully talk to women about alternatives to abortion is unconstitutionally infringed by such buffers.
Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley argues that the state buffer-zone law has kept the peace around abortion clinics.
The high court heard arguments in that case in January, and is expected to issue a ruling by June.
The new City of Madison law, passed unanimously Feb. 25 by its city council, creates buffer zones in a 160-foot radius around each entrance of any “hospital, clinic, or office that is used by a licensed physician.”
Within these huge buffer zones, people with leaflets and signs, or those who wish to engage in “oral protest, education or counseling,” must stay more than 8 feet away from people unless they have consented to contact. Violators face fines and incarceration.
The Madison law’s goal is to create “an 8-foot bubble of protection around individuals” as they approach and depart health-care facilities, city Alder Lisa Subeck, lead sponsor of the law, wrote in Wisconsin State Journal.
The 160-foot radius was picked because it typically covers the distance between a bus stop and the door of a facility, Ms. Subeck, former executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin, told reporters.
The law was preapproved by the Madison council’s experts on the law, public health and public safety; at least 80 citizens wrote to the council to support the buffer zone.
In their lawsuit, Madison Vigil for Life Director Gwen Finnegan and her fellow plaintiffs said the buffer zones are so expansive that they will include parts of college campuses and farmers’ markets, entire city blocks, public squares, and even the council’s own government building, since its public spaces “fall into bubble zones from nearby physicians’ offices.”
Freedom of speech is “at its apex on public streets and sidewalks when citizens wish to persuade other citizens by means of leafleting and personal education,” said the lawsuit, filed by Matthew S. Bowman and other attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom. The city’s new law is “poorly conceived” and an “unjustified attack on free speech,” it added.