Time to kill the “buffer zone” law

“Safety and balance.” That has been the cry parroted by supporters of New Hampshire’s unenforced and unenforceable buffer zone law ever since its introduction and passage in 2014. Keeping people safe means keeping people silent: that’s some screwy balance. No wonder the law has never been used.

It’s time for the Sidewalk Free Speech Act, HB 430, which will have its hearing tomorrow, February 9, at 2 p.m. It will repeal the buffer zone law, if passed.

Four times, efforts to repeal that law have failed. It’s imperative to keep trying. It’s time to erase a blot on New Hampshire’s statutes by getting rid of the buffer zone law. See the end of this post for details on how you can let legislators know that.

HB 430 ought to pass with an overwhelming majority. Anyone who values the First Amendment will support it. Abortion will be unaffected when HB 430 passes, but First Amendment rights will be reaffirmed.

“Safety and balance”

New Hampshire’s buffer zone law allows abortion facility managers to decide the times and places members of the public may occupy public property within 25 feet of the facility. That’s a “buffer zone.” Municipal agencies may be consulted about a proposed zone, but have no say in whether a zone is actually set up.

Is there any wonder that no one has dared to set up a buffer zone so far? Just how hungry for litigation does someone have to be in order to support such a law? And yet legislators have continued to tolerate having the law on the books.

The sponsor of the buffer zone law, Sen. Donna Soucy (D-Manchester, still in office), cited “safety and balance” repeatedly as she shepherded her bill onto then-Gov. Hassan’s desk in 2014. She spoke as though the advocates of safety were somehow in opposition to advocates of peaceful witness.

The buffer zone law makes no distinction between violent action and silent prayer. Neither the actions nor the intentions of a person outside an abortion facility figure into the buffer zone law. Only the opinion of a “reproductive health care facility” manager carries any weight.

Sen. Soucy was concerned about violence, as though people praying on the sidewalk weren’t just as concerned about it. She spoke of safety, even though there was zero documentation by law enforcement that any ordinances or state laws had been used against peaceful pro-life witnesses outside abortion facilities.

Violence is abhorrent, inside and outside an abortion facility. The buffer zone law has done nothing, and can do nothing, to prevent it.

So if the buffer zone doesn’t prevent violence, what’s its purpose? It was written to squelch unpopular speech. The last time a law similar to New Hampshire’s got to the Supreme Court, the Court threw it out on its figurative ear.

Supreme Court says there must be alternatives

A Planned Parenthood of Northern New England lobbyist testified in 2014 that a buffer zone was necessary, as attested by 60 complaints made by patients at the Manchester facility.

Complaints made to police? No. Those 60 complaints were made to PP. None resulted in any law enforcement involvement. So were any laws or ordinances broken in the course of those 60 complaints? Apparently not. Either PP didn’t report any complaints to the police – which even now makes me wonder just how seriously they take patient safety – or PP knew that the “complaints” didn’t rise to the level of criminal activity such as harassment, trespassing, disorderly conduct, or breach of the peace.

That’s not a good enough reason to keep a buffer zone law. Don’t take my word for it. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in McCullen v. Coakley, relative to a Massachusetts buffer zone law, that one could not impose First Amendment restrictions outside an abortion facility without first using less-severe alternatives to address objectionable behavior. In legal parlance, restrictions outside abortion facilities must be narrowly tailored.

The Court affirmed the right of states to impose reasonable restrictions on the time, place, and manner of speech. Overbroad laws, however, won’t withstand Supreme Court scrutiny.

That old struck-down Massachusetts law was the model for the New Hampshire law, by the way.

To quote from Justice Roberts’s opinion in McCullen, which I repeat was a unanimous decision, even as the abortion-friendly Justice Ginsburg was participating:

To meet the requirement of narrow tailoring, the government must demonstrate that alterna­tive measures that burden substantially less speech would fail to achieve the government’s interests, not simply that the chosen route is easier. A painted line on the sidewalk is easy to enforce, but the prime objective of the First Amendment is not efficiency.

If Common­wealth officials can compile an extensive record of obstruc­tion and harassment to support their preferred legislation, we do not see why they cannot do the same to support injunctions and prosecutions against those who might deliberately flout the law.  

McCullen v. Coakley, 573 U.S. 464

You have to enforce other laws and ordinances before impeding anyone’s First Amendment rights. Simple. Yet since 2014, that fact has not been enough to persuade New Hampshire legislators to throw out the buffer zone law. Republicans and Democrats alike bear the responsibility for ignoring McCullen; it’s a bipartisan error.

Fun fact: Massachusetts taxpayers eventually had to pay $1.2 million in legal fees to the attorneys for Eleanor McCullen, the plaintiff in the Massachusetts case.

Law enforcement avoided

Even today, as buffer zone repeal is introduced, Planned Parenthood of Northern New England seems to avoid calling on law enforcement. From a flyer distributed to patients at its Manchester facility this month: If you feel that you have been harassed or threatened by anyone near the health center at your health care visit today, please send an email to share your thoughts or experience to the email addresses below. Your voice and your privacy are important, and your elected leaders should hear from you: Office of Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig, email mayor@manchesternh.gov; Manchester ward 3 Alderman Pat Long, email long55@comcast.net. You can also call the Mayor’s office right now at (603) 624-6500.

Photo by Catherine Kelley. Used with permission.

There’s something missing from that flyer: contact information for the Manchester police. If patient safety were a concern, the police phone number would be listed first. It’s not listed at all.

How to contact House Judiciary Committee about HB 430

I’m going to urge the members of the House Judiciary Committee to vote OUGHT TO PASS on HB 430. Here’s how.

Sign in on HB 430 immediately. Don’t wait until the hearing begins; the committee might not see your sign-in. Use this online form: choose February 9, House Judiciary Committee, HB 430, representing self, supporting the bill; indicate if you plan to testify and the amount of time you think you’ll need. You may also email your testimony (see below).

Watch and participate in the hearing via Zoom online. (All public participation in hearings is remote for the time being.) Zoom log-in: https://www.zoom.us/j/96805083773, or dial 1-929-205-6099 (note: that is a toll number; keep that in mind if you’re calling from a landline!). The webinar ID is 968 0508 3773.

Email your written testimony to the Judiciary Committee as soon as possible; you need not testify via Zoom. An email to HouseJudiciaryCommittee@leg.state.nh.us will reach all committee members.

Don't buffer the First Amendment

Header photo: Michael Drummond/Pixabay.

Update: Those “Common Sense” Initiatives Sununu Supported

Governor Chris Sununu (nh.gov photo)

Six months ago, just before the last statewide election in New Hampshire, a concerned pro-life Republican elicited a letter from Chris Sununu listing some pro-life initiatives Sununu would back if he were elected governor.

Number of those initiatives that Governor Sununu has had a chance to sign: zero.

Fetal Homicide Bill: House and Senate versions have been “retained” in the House Criminal Justice Committee. No word yet on any subcommittee being assigned to look at these bills.

Women’s Health Protection Act: However that may be defined – whether informed consent, or making abortion facilities meet the same standards as ambulatory care facilities, or letting a woman know in advance the name and qualifications of the person about to perform her abortion – no such legislation came forward in the 2017 New Hampshire legislative session.

Healthcare Freedom of Conscience Act: No legislation offered.

Late-Term Abortion Ban: Failed. A motion of “ought to pass with amendment” on HB 578 failed in the House on a 170-189 vote. The bill was then tabled on a voice vote.  A few representatives indicated that they voted ITL because the bill didn’t go far enough. That was not the prevailing view.

Buffer Zone Repeal: Failed. HB 579 was voted “inexpedient to legislate” on a 191-165 House vote, the First Amendment notwithstanding. Note, however, that no abortion facility has yet posted a zone. No thanks to the legislature for that.

From candidate-now-Governor Sununu’s letter: “I know that my winning the race for Governor will be our best chance to get this important work done.”

By the way, there are Republican majorities in the New Hampshire House and Senate this year. Do not confuse “Republican” with “pro-life.”

The Governor’s term still has a year and a half to run. He may get something relevant on his desk next year from House and Senate.  It remains to be seen if he’ll sit back and wait, or if he’ll work to build support for the measures he said he’d sign.

Health care conscience rights: as Sweden goes…?

In November 2015, I posted the words of Ellinor Grimmark, a Swedish midwife under fire for declining to participate in abortions.

”As a midwife, I want to exercise a profession which defends life and saves lives at all cost. Are healthcare practitioners in Sweden to be forced to take part in procedures that extinguish life, at its beginning or final stages? Somebody has to take the little children’s side, somebody has to fight for their right to life. A midwife described to me how she had held an aborted baby in her arms, still alive, and cried desperately for an hour while the baby struggled to breathe. These children do not even have a right to pain relief. I cannot take part in this.”

Ms. Grimmark went to court to get her job back. Now, a year and a half later, a Swedish court has determined that Ms. Grimmark did not suffer discrimination, nor had authorities violated her freedom of expression (BBC report here). It’s OK in Sweden to require health care professionals to participate in abortions as a condition of employment.

And that works, as far as a spokeswoman for “Sweden’s Health Professionals” is concerned: “[P]eople seeking care should not have to think about your own opinions”.

Think it couldn’t happen here? Think again. New Hampshire has no law protecting the conscience rights of medical professionals. Bills to change that have elicited testimony from abortion supporters that sounds a lot like the statement from the Swedish Health Professionals.

Watch Sweden, and take note.


 

In Washington, abortion de-funding intentions are good, but…

visitthecapitol.gov photo
visitthecapitol.gov photo

My inbox blossomed with emails the other day, each trying to outdo the other with screaming subject lines, along the lines of “House Votes to Defund Planned Parenthood!!!” (The number of exclamation points varied.) What’s Congress up to? Turns out there was indeed a vote recently on a so-called reconciliation bill that, if accepted by the U.S. Senate and the President, would stop or restrict funding to Planned Parenthood for one – count ’em, one – year, diverting the funding to community health centers that do not provide abortions. The U.S. House adopted the bill on a 240-189 vote. New Hampshire’s Members of Congress split, predictably: First District’s Frank Guinta voted Aye, while Annie Kuster of the Second District voted Nay.

Two cheers, says I. Nah, make it one. Better yet, a simple nod – with a raised eyebrow.

Reports on the vote from a pro-life perspective are numerous. The Susan B. Anthony List and LifeNews.com provide good examples.

The bill at least nods in the direction of privatizing the abortion industry. So why am I not more excited?

  • The Senate may or may not take up the bill; some pro-life Senators want to block it because it doesn’t stop enough Obamacare funding.
  • “Prohibited entity” under the terms of the bill – the agencies that would lose funding – include agencies that provide abortions, “other than an abortion…if the pregnancy is the result of an act of rape or incest.”
  • The funding restriction is for one year, reportedly to give Members of Congress time to review Planned Parenthood’s business practices including the body-parts business documented by the Center for Medical Progress. (PP now says it won’t try to make a profit on the Frankenstein-lab stuff, although how that can be verified is a mystery.) But it’s not videotaped gruesomeness that’s fundamentally objectionable – it’s the abortions themselves.

The President would veto any such bill, of course, but that’s no reason not to send it to his desk. Let him own any veto. Let him explain why he doesn’t want all that money going to women’s health via community health centers.

It’ll be interesting to follow this bill, although its course seems predictable (see above). Any attempt to let taxpayers divest from the abortion industry is a noble effort. It would be a mistake to make that divestiture a temporary thing, based on whether or not a sufficient number of Members of Congress are nauseated by the CMP videos.