U.S. Supreme Court will hear Mass. “buffer zone” case

U.S. Supreme Court. Wikipedia Commons photo, public domain.
U.S. Supreme Court. Wikipedia Commons photo, public domain.

As a petition for a 35-foot so-called “buffer zone” is being made to the the Concord, NH, city council, an announcement today from the U.S. Supreme Court may have some bearing on the Council’s response.

The Court agreed to hear in its next session a case involving a Massachusetts buffer zone. In McCullen v. Coakley, pro-life advocates of free speech are challenging a ruling earlier this year by the First Circuit Court of Appeals upholding a 35-foot zone around Massachusetts abortion facilities. The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case this fall.

Will Concord officials want to pursue a measure similar to one pending Supreme Court review? We’ll find out July 8 when the City Council has its next meeting. I plan to be there. [note, added 7/3/13: the agenda for the July meeting does not include the “buffer zone” petition.]

As The Susan B. Anthony List posted on its site in response to the Court’s announcement, “We shall see whether the Court agrees that free speech includes sidewalk counseling.”

Thirty-five feet, in theory & practice

What would a First-Amendment-blackout zone look like around the Feminist Health Center in Concord? There’s a petition circulating in town to bar protesters, including those in silent prayer, from getting within 35 feet of .. of what? The doors of “reproductive health centers”? Their clients? Their property lines? Perhaps that’ll be cleared up when the City Council hears the petition. [An earlier version of this post indicated the petition would be heard in July. As of July 3, the petition was not on the Council’s agenda for its July 8 meeting.]

Today, I took a few pictures outside the FHC to get an idea of where a prayer witness would have to go to be more than 35 feet away from FHC property. The first thing I noticed was that there is currently no sidewalk across the street, because of construction on a Main Street building.

35 feet across from the Feminist Health Center: no sidewalk.
35 feet across from the Feminist Health Center: no sidewalk.

With that construction underway and that section of sidewalk currently closed, the nearest open sidewalk across the street from the FHC is in front of the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce office. I wonder if the Chamber knows that.

The FHC is on the northwest corner of Main & Thompson streets in Concord, with a sidewalk on two sides of the building. The frontage on Main is 26 of my steps long, which by a very sketchy measurement is about 57 feet wide. The  property line on Thompson Street is longer: 80 steps, or about 175 feet, from Main Street to the fence at the back of the parking lot. (This assessor’s map from the City of Concord web site is more accurate than my pace-by-pace estimate.)

Thirty-five feet from that back parking lot, measured along the north side of Thompson Street, would put protesters onto a neighboring driveway. As a practical matter, a 35-foot “buffer” in that direction would put protesters on State Street.

The sidewalk on the other side of Thompson Street would be off-limits. The street is only 10 of my paces wide, or about 21 feet. (At January’s March for Life, walkers were able to use that sidewalk, under the watchful eyes of Concord police and FHC supporters, without incident.)

FHC supporters greet pro-life marchers, January 2013.
FHC supporters greet pro-life marchers, January 2013.

What about the sidewalk directly in front of the FHC? Today, two pro-lifers were praying quietly, careful to block neither the sidewalk nor the walkway to the FHC’s front door.

Peaceful protest, blocking nothing.
Peaceful protest, blocking nothing.

To remain on that side of the street, a thirty-five foot zone would force these peaceful protesters either north, putting them in front of a New Hampshire Employment Security office, or south, putting them in front of what appears to be a small apartment building. Here’s the view from the Employment Security office:

West side of Main Street, 35 feet north of FHC.
West side of Main Street, 35 feet north of FHC.

An aerial view of the block, with a 35-foot speech-blackout zone superimposed, wouldn’t convey the whole story of what a “buffer” would look like, especially with the ongoing construction across from the Feminist Health Center. Photographs and aerial views also can’t address the underlying question of why there’s an attempt in Concord to interfere with the First Amendment rights of peaceful protesters.

This week: buffer zone petition in Concord; a gutsy Baltimore Raven; the IRS and the ACA

The Concord Monitor is reporting that a petition will be presented to the Concord City Council seeking a 35-foot “buffer zone” around the Feminist Health Center at the intersection of Main and Thompson Streets. According to the June 2 Monitor article, the petitioners would like to see the 35-foot zone applied to anything that could be categorized as a “reproductive health clinic.” A reliable source has confirmed for me that as the article indicates, no public hearing has been scheduled at this point.

This is the first New Hampshire petition to come to light since the recent announcement by PPNNE’s senior policy director that “conversations” have been underway about buffer zones at PPNNE facilities. The Concord petition, however, does not appear at first glance to be a PPNNE project. According to the Monitor, the petition came as a surprise to the executive director of the Feminist Health Center.

The zone sought by petitioners would be off-limits to “protesters.” The U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a 35-foot buffer zone in a Massachusetts case last January. Burlington, Vermont officials have approved a 35-foot zone for PPNNE’s facility there.

I took this photograph at January’s March for Life in Concord while walking on a sidewalk across Thompson Street from the FHC. I did not use a telephoto lens. Close quarters, as you can see.

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Interesting sports news: Pro-life NFL champion, dismayed by the President’s God-bless-PP speech, declines to join his teammates at the White House (Politico) http://politi.co/15FTccn

Finally, when you read your newspaper this week and find yet another story about the IRS and its treatment of conservative groups, ponder how this same IRS is going to be responsible for determining what qualifies as a “religious organization” for purposes of exemptions to the HHS mandate of the “Affordable” Care Act. I squirm to think that I once thought that was a good idea, compared to letting Kathleen Sebelius and HHS handle it. Is impartiality even possible here?

PPNNE is having “conversations” about no-protest zones outside NH facilities

PPNNE's Manchester NH facility. Photo: Facebook/40 Days for Life.
PPNNE’s Manchester NH facility. Photo: Facebook/40 Days for Life.

Update: New Hampshire Governor Maggie Hassan signed a statewide buffer-zone bill into law on June 10, 2014.

Jennifer Frizzell, senior policy advisor for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, acknowledged in a radio interview this morning that PPNNE is looking into what she calls a “patient safety zone” or “buffer” outside PPNNE’s New Hampshire facilities. She referred specifically to the Manchester office, which she said had seen “increasing amounts of activity, targeting and intimidating clients.” She added, “we’re just having preliminary conversations” about potential city ordinances and state legislation.

Frizzell was a guest on New Hampshire Public Radio’s The Exchange, hosted by Laura Knoy. Ashley Pratte, executive director of Cornerstone Policy Research, joined Frizzell and Knoy to discuss “The Shifting Landscape of Abortion Law.” (Program audio here.)

“There was a relatively significant case recently out of Massachusetts where a 35-foot buffer zone to protect patients entering and exiting clinics was upheld through [an] appellate court,” said Frizzell, adding that the court found “appropriate balance of free speech rights of protesters and the need for patients to have safe access, uninterrupted, to get into and out of health care facilities.” PPNNE’s Burlington, Vermont facility has a 35-foot buffer zone as well. Such zones normally prohibit standing, marching, praying, or protesting within a specified distance of an abortion facility.

Manchester’s Planned Parenthood office on Pennacook Street was recently the site of a 40 Days for Life prayer vigil, with up to 150 people at a time praying outside the facility during the campaign that ended on Palm Sunday. Smaller groups of people continue to pray outside the building, placing particular emphasis on Thursdays, when surgical abortions are reportedly performed at the facility (see prayforlifecenter.org).

Rep. Jane Cormier (R-Alton) sponsored an informed consent bill in the New Hampshire House this year. I asked her this afternoon to comment on Frizzell’s remarks, and she quickly asked, “Violation of free speech?” I took her question to a New Hampshire attorney with experience in First Amendment cases. His response was unequivocal: “This [would be] an unconstitutional infringement on freedom of speech and assembly.” He noted that New Hampshire has “lots of great cases” relative to protesters’ First Amendment rights, stemming from the arrests of members of the Clamshell Alliance who protested the construction of the Seabrook nuclear power plant in the 1970s and 1980s.

Catherine Kelley, who prays outside PP’s Manchester office and is one of the organizers of the Pray for Life Center, was equally blunt this afternoon. “We are absolutely opposed to any type of buffer or bubble zone. ‘Live Free or Die’ means we should be free to speak for and about life anywhere and anytime. I knew this was coming when PP got it passed in Vermont.”

Frizzell did not specify with whom these “conversations” about buffer zones are being held. Most buffer zones are enacted through municipal ordinance.