According to a report in Seacoast Online, New Hampshire Attorney General Joseph Foster has announced that the state’s new “buffer zone” law will not be enforced until further notice. The announcement was part of a formal filing in federal court, responding to the lawsuit by seven pro-lifers seeking to block enforcement of an anti-free-speech zone around abortion facilities.
Planned Parenthood of Northern New England issued its own statement late yesterday. announcing that it had no “present intentions” of posting buffer zone signs around its New Hampshire offices. “We continue to evaluate the Supreme Court ruling, as well as patient protection laws around the country, to ensure that women can continue to make their own health care decisions without judgment from strangers and abusive and physically threatening protesters and without fear of harassment or intimidation. No matter what agenda these protesters and outside legal groups might pursue, Planned Parenthood’s No. 1 priority remains the safety and privacy of our patients and staff.”
It seems that there’s an issue with people drawing on the sidewalks in Keene. At least a city councilor thinks there is. Now there’s talk of a sidewalk-graffiti ordinance. This has prompted an interesting response from an organization that lobbied for New Hampshire’s buffer zone law.
From the New Hampshire Union Leader, June 19, 2014, by correspondent Meghan Pierce:
The issue came to a head on June 3 when a man holding a chalking event in Central Square was assaulted and severely injured. In a letter to the Keene City Council, the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union said such an ordinance would be a violation of freedom of speech. “The NHCLU certainly understands the City Council’s concern about this serious confrontation in one of the most prominent areas of the city. But I also hope that the city’s response is not to broadly suppress peaceful speech in public places — including speech that is political in nature and is necessary to a functioning democracy. Here, perhaps the more tailored response to this act of violence would be to more aggressively enforce existing criminal laws that prohibit the precise physical confrontation that occurred on June 3,” wrote head attorney of the NHCLU, Gilles Bissonnette.
The NHCLU was represented at the buffer zone hearings in Concord by executive director Devon Chaffee. Ms. Chaffee made no suggestion that a more “tailored response” to peaceful pro-life witness would be to enforce existing laws near abortion facilities.
Laws against illegal parking or disorderly conduct, for example, or laws against trespassing. or laws against harassment or simple assault. That’s assuming that any such activity might have been taking place. Law enforcement agencies reported no evidence to back up such an assumption. Remember, no law enforcement officials could be found to testify this year to the legislature that they had even been called to make arrests outside abortion facilities in New Hampshire. Planned Parenthood’s alleged “sixty complaints” from 2013 resulted in zero arrests – not surprising, since the “complaints” were made only to PP employees. A Seacoast abortion provider who recalled “trouble” was referring to events a generation ago, as committee questioning made clear.
There was no violence and no police action in New Hampshire to make a “buffer” necessary. The push for a buffer zone came from abortion providers and from legislators eager to accommodate them.
Breaking news: the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously agreed today that the First Amendment applies to speech. Seriously. And it all started when a Congressman lost his re-election bid and accused a pro-life group of denying him his livelihood. (Can’t make this stuff up.)
I’m only barely facetious here. What actually happened was that the Court ruled that the Susan B. Anthony List has standing to challenge an Ohio “false statement” law on First Amendment grounds. Former Ohio Congressman Steve Driehaus took exception to SBA List’s claim that his vote for Obamacare was a vote for abortion. He lost his election and blamed SBA List for it. He cited an Ohio law criminalizing “false statements” during a campaign.
SBA List is fighting the law, claiming that not only was their statement true, but that the First Amendment takes precedence over state law. The Supreme Court today agreed that the group may continue its challenge to the Ohio law in lower courts.
That’s reassuring. I hope it’s not the high-water mark for free speech and religious liberty, as we wait for buffer zone and Obamacare mandate decisions within the next couple of weeks.
Remarks after the decision: “We will continue to tell the truth”
SBA List President Marjorie Dannenfelser spoke to reporters during a conference call less than an hour after the decision was announced, saying that she did not go looking for this case. “We are a pro-life group, and our job is to win elections. We will continue to tell the truth even if an Ohio law says we have to stop speaking.” She called today’s decision “a resounding victory against fear in the public square. The threat of jail time, of fines that could put you out of business, that is a chill.” She added “it’s still the voters’ responsibility” to evaluate statements made in the course of a campaign.
Michael A. Carvin, one of the attorneys for SBA List in this case, said the group would move “very expeditiously” to an Ohio district court, seeking an injunction against Ohio’s so-called “false statement” law in time for the Fall 2014 elections. “There’s no excuse for delay.”
Carvin noted that the Ohio elections commission has independent litigating authority. What that tells me is that even if the Ohio attorney general declines to waste taxpayer resources on a dead-bang-loser of a free-speech case, the elections board could go ahead anyway. (We don’t know what Ohio officials will decide to do at this point.)
Obamacare and abortion
We already know about the HHS contraceptive mandate, which includes coverage for abortion-inducing drugs under the mistitled “Affordable Care Act.”. SBA List points out further issues:
“The law, known as Obamacare, permitted direct payments for abortion under risk pools and other clauses and included elective abortion plans in tax-preferred state exchanges. The law’s Preventative Services Mandate forces employers to provide coverage of abortion-inducing drugs and also includes a loophole allowing Congress and its staff to spent federal dollars on abortion-funding health care plans.”
Eight New Hampshire legislators are co-sponsoring a bill to impose a 25-foot “buffer zone” around abortion facilities. Senate bill 319 seeks to criminalize the act of entering or remaining within 25 feet of any entrance, exit, or driveway of a “reproductive health care facility.” The minimum fine for violation would be $100.
The bill’s prime sponsor is Sen. Donna Soucy (D-Manchester). Co-sponsors are Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley (R-Wolfeboro), Sen. Bob Odell (R-Lempster), Sen. Nancy Stiles (R-Hampton), and Representatives Patrick Long (D-Manchester), Mary Heath (D-Manchester), and Candace Bouchard (D-Concord). No hearing date has yet been set for the bill, which will get its initial hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Sharon Carson (R-Londonderry).
The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to rule by late June on the constitutionality of a Massachusetts law imposing a 35-foot buffer around abortion facilities in that state. When residents of Concord, New Hampshire submitted a petition to the City Council a few months ago seeking a buffer zone around the Feminist Health Center on South Main Street, the city attorney recommended that no action be taken before the Supreme Court issues its ruling on the Massachusetts law. New Hampshire legislators have decided to go ahead in advance of Court action.
SB 319 would not apply to persons entering or leaving the abortion facility, municipal employees acting within the scope of employment, and people passing by the facility enroute to another destination.
The bill’s statement of findings and purposes begins with acknowledgments that facility access is a right that must be protected, as is the First Amendment right to “protest or counsel against certain medical procedures.” The right to pray silently outside an abortion facility is not specified as a right that must be protected.
These additional findings are part of the bill and would be codified in law if the bill passes:
“Recent demonstrations outside of reproductive health facilities have resulted in the fear and intimidation of patients and employees of these facilities … have caused patients and employees of these facilities to believe that their safety and right of privacy are threatened … have resulted in the fear and intimidation of residents and patrons seeking to enter or leave their homes or other private businesses adjacent to the reproductive health care facilities.
“The general court [legislature] further finds that it is in the interest of public health, safety and welfare to regulate the use of public sidewalks and streets adjacent to reproductive health care facilities to promote the free flow of traffic on streets and sidewalks, reduce disputes and potentially violent confrontations requiring significant law enforcement services, protect property rights, protect First Amendment freedoms of speech and expression and secure a citizen’s right to seek reproductive health care services.”
Potentially violent confrontations?
I took this photo during the last 40 Days for Life campaign in Manchester. It shows people praying quietly outside an abortion facility, moving along so as not to block the driveway. All 40DFL participants sign a written pledge to engage in nonviolent behavior even in the face of provocation.
Free flow of traffic on streets and sidewalks?
These people were praying outside the Feminist Health Center in Concord when I visited one day to measure what a 35-foot buffer might look like around the property. They accosted no one. The sidewalk flow was no different from the flow on the other side of the street. SB 319 would push these people away from the FHC. (They could then move to the front entrance of the Chamber of Commerce across the street, by the way, where prayer and protest would presumably remain legal.)
Contact information for senators and representatives can be found here, using the links “Find your representatives” and “New Senate roster.”
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.”