The New York attorney general says Kenneth Griepp was 15 feet from an abortion clinic. He went to federal court this week to try to push him an extra foot away.
Attorney General Eric Schneiderman also admitted to having investigators scour social media and track license plates of pro-life protesters, helping to build his case against 14 protesters he said were getting too close to the Choices Women’s Medical Center, a women’s health and abortion clinic located in Jamaica, Queens, on a weekly basis since 2012.
Mr. Schneiderman’s lawsuit filed Tuesday says the protesters, who are members of different churches and charity organizations, physically touched patients, verbally abused them, threatened harm, filmed them and lied about the clinic’s services and hours of operation.
He also identified by name more than three dozen others who aren’t defendants in the case, but who he said were all affiliated with the charities and churches, according to the complaint he filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.
Of the 14 protesters Mr. Schneiderman sued, he said 9 of them were 15 feet from the clinic while protesting. Two others were closer.
The attorney general said he wants them all to be at least 16 feet, saying that size buffer zone will enable people to safely come and go, while still allowing protesters to voice their concerns.
“Buffer zones have been approved repeatedly by courts. We’re seeking a 16-feet buffer here because that’s just the length the size of the sidewalk,” he said at a press conference Tuesday.
On Thursday, Thomas More Society attorney Andrew Bath, who is representing the defendants, said Mr. Schneiderman was trying to trample his clients’ First Amendment rights.
“We will vigorously defend our clients’ right to continue to peacefully deliver a pro-life message to abortion-minded women on the public sidewalk,” Mr. Bath said.
Josh Blackman, a law professor at South Texas College of Law, said he understands why the lawsuit identified the defendants, but said it was “entirely gratuitous” to name dozens of other church members who aren’t being sued by the government.
Mr. Blackman also said the requested 16-feet buffer zone, according to the map displayed in the legal complaint, would only give the protesters two inches of space on one side of the clinic and seven inches on the other side.
“That would make it impossible for the defendants to stand on any street abutting the clinic. If enforced, people would have to yell across a busy Jamaica Avenue,” he said.
But Merle Hoffman, the founder and owner of the clinic, said issues with the protesters have been escalating and the 16-foot barrier would help protect patients.
“This would put them across the street, so perhaps women and girls would be allowed to enter in safety, and a degree of freedom now because of so many protesters,” she said.
Legal battles over the space around abortion clinics have raged for years.
In 2014, the Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts law creating a 35-foot buffer zone around an abortion clinic in Boston, suggesting it was an unfair restraint on free speech under the First Amendment.
In the ruling, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said pro-life protesters don’t aim to merely chant and hold signs, but to educate women on alternatives to abortion through consensual conversations.
In the New York case, Mr. Schneiderman said his undercover investigators documented the aggressive tactics used by the defendants and are submitting the video recordings to the court.
“In light of the history of abortion-clinic violence over the last several decades, these threats place the recipients in fear of imminent bodily harm,” Mr. Schneiderman’s lawsuit reads. “As a result, the protesters’ obstructive tactics have their intended effect and routinely deter or delay patients who are attempting to access medically necessary care.”
Two of the 14 defendants allegedly came within four to five feet of the clinic’s entrance, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit also says clinic employees had to call police during the past year due to the “increasingly aggressive” behavior of the protesters, but the police have told the clinic they can’t take action unless they witness the aggressive conduct or a crime being committed.