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.

A Note on Death Penalty Repeal

Governor Chris Sununu of New Hampshire has vetoed repeal of the state’s death penalty law. As I write, the House will vote on an override in just a few hours. Whether enough votes are there is anyone’s guess. It’s going to be close. The Governor is fighting hard to have his veto sustained.

He considers capital punishment to be a way of supporting law enforcement. As the granddaughter of a cop and the niece of two others, I don’t, but that’s not what this post is about.

It’s odd that in a year when the Governor has promised that he’ll be vetoing all kinds of bills, he’s putting such a high value on vetoing this one. It’s his first veto, and he’s facing a Democratic House and Senate. I have heard from Republican legislators about the pressure being brought to bear by party brass to back up the Governor’s determination to keep the death penalty on the books.

I got a faint whiff of the pressure myself this morning at an informal gathering of political acquaintances. I’m an undeclared voter (that’s Granitespeak for “independent”), but I was admonished by someone who should know better that I had to back the Governor on this one, and tell my reps to do likewise.

A conscience vote was fine when the bill first came through House and Senate, I was told, but that was then and this is now. Now, it’s not a conscience vote. It’s a matter of supporting the Governor. The Dems are doing this on purpose, timing this, trying to make him look bad.

The Governor, by the way, touted a 64% approval rating in April, making him the third-most-popular governor in the nation. He doesn’t need my pity.

I’ve been involved in politics all my adult life. I understand horse trading, whipping votes, and how arms need to be twisted now and then. But never, least of all now, have I had any patience for considering a life-issue bill to be a matter of conscience in March and a matter of saving face two months later.

This is the kind of thing that makes “undeclared” the largest bloc of voters in New Hampshire.

Opposition to the death penalty is something of a stumbling block to a lot of people who are pro-life in other respects. Some of those people are Republican legislators who voted against the repeal bill earlier this session and will vote to sustain the veto. They’re not giving the party whips any heartburn. They will be consistent.

The Republicans who voted in favor of death penalty repeal are the ones getting the lectures now. They’re the ones I’m thinking about as the vote nears. I hope they’ll be consistent, too.

Update, 5/30/19: HB 455, described in this post, has become law over Governor Sununu’s veto. The override votes were by the narrowest of margins, with two-thirds necessary: 247-123 in the House, 16-8 in the Senate.

N.H. House Committee Rejects Buffer Zone Repeal Bill

On a vote of 14-4, the New Hampshire House Judiciary Committee voted “inexpedient to legislate” (ITL) today on HB 124, which seeks to repeal the buffer zone law. The full House will take up the bill at a date yet to be determined. [Update: House vote is scheduled for January 31.]

The law, written to give abortion facility managers authority to restrict public access to public areas, has never been used since its passage in 2014. Its clear incompatibility with the U.S. Supreme Court’s McCullen decision might be the reason. Only the abortion facility managers know for sure.

All Democrats on the committee were joined by Republicans Edward Gordon (R-Bristol) and Joe Alexander (R-Goffstown) in voting to kill the repeal effort. Voting against the ITL motion were Republicans Kurt Wuelper (R-Strafford), Gary Hopper (R-Weare), Barbara Griffin (R-Goffstown), and Mark McLean (R-Manchester).

“For me, it comes down to a free speech issue,” said Rep. McLean. “No clinic throughout the state has actually put [the buffer zone’s] provisions into play.”

Rep. Wuelper, the bill’s chief sponsor, told his colleagues before the vote, “[The buffer zone law’s] very intent is to restrict speech and religion in a public space based on the content of speech. [The law] hasn’t done any good in five years. It won’t do any good in 50 years.”

Not so, countered Rep. Paul Berch (D-Westmoreland). “Perhaps it’s had a salutary effect,” he said. “The facts that were present [when the law was passed] have not changed.” He’s right about that much: McCullen was present when the law was passed and it’s still binding precedent. Rep. Berch also said, “The law was drafted and passed after the Supreme Court decision [in McCullen].” He may have forgotten that the buffer zone law was drafted no later than the opening of the legislative session in January 2014, while the McCullen decision came down in June of that year.

“This is a church-state issue,” added Rep. Timothy Horrigan (D-Durham), saying he had documentation that one particular religious entity, the Catholic Church, opposed the buffer zone. “I am a Roman Catholic myself.” His one-religion claim probably comes as a surprise to people like Rev. Don Colageo of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Manchester, who has frequently led prayer vigils at an area abortion site. Further, said Rep. Horrigan, “There isn’t a First Amendment right to provide counseling or advocacy if you’re not licensed.”

The ITL motion was made by Rep. Debra Altschiller (D-Stratham) and seconded by Rep. Sandra Keans (D-Rochester.)

Buffer zone repeal, 2019: hearing Jan. 9

Nine New Hampshire state representatives led by Kurt Wuelper (R-Strafford) are sponsoring HB 124, a bill to repeal the state’s so-called “buffer zone” law. That law is an anti-First-Amendment measure targeting peaceful pro-life witnesses outside abortion facilities. The public hearing on HB 124 is scheduled for Wednesday, January 9, in the House Judiciary Committee at 1:00 p.m. in room 208 of the Legislative Office Building in Concord.

The committee is scheduled to vote on a recommendation to the full House regarding the bill on January 15.

Options for registering your opinion on the bill:

  • Attend the hearing. At that time you may deliver your testimony (speaking) to the committee, deliver written testimony with or without speaking, or simply sign the bill’s “blue sheet” (which will be available near the door of the committee room) to check off a box indicating support for the bill.
  • Email the committee. The Judiciary Committee page on the House web site does not currently provide a committee address, but if you email chief sponsor Rep. Wuelper at kurt.wuelper@leg.state.nh.us, he can forward your message to his colleagues. Subject line: YES on HB 124.

New Hampshire’s buffer zone law was passed in 2014, but has never been used. It authorizes abortion facility managers to determine where and when peaceful pro-life witnesses may occupy public property near abortion facilities. Maggie Hassan, then serving as Governor, signed the law despite the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court had only days before ruled a similar Massachusetts law to be unconstitutional (McCullen v. Coakley).

For background, you can consult the dedicated page compiling this blog’s reports on the buffer zone issue.


Text of HB 124 as introduced:

AN ACT repealing the law relative to the buffer zones to reproductive health care facilities.

1. Statement of Findings and Purpose.
I. The general court hereby finds that:

(a) The exercise of a person’s right to free speech is a First Amendment activity, the protection of which is paramount.

(b) RSA 132:37 through RSA 132:40 (2014, 81) would infringe on the free speech rights of innocent people.

(c) RSA 132:37 through RSA 132:40 (2014, 81), if implemented would be subject to immediate constitutional challenge.

(d) RSA 132:37 through RSA 132:40 (2014, 81) has served no public purpose.

II. Therefore, the general court hereby repeals RSA 132:37 through RSA 132:40 because if left as law, this statute will cause the state of New Hampshire to expend considerable sums defending a law which the United States Supreme Court may find unconstitutional and which has served no public purpose.

2 Repeal. RSA 132:37-132:40, relative to access to reproductive health care facilities, are repealed.

3 Effective Date. This act shall take effect upon its passage.

 

A fiscal reason for repealing N.H.’s buffer zone law

Photo by Beth Scaer

Two years ago, I noted that the state of Massachusetts had agreed on behalf of the state’s taxpayers to pay $1.24 million dollars to the attorneys for the plaintiffs in McCullen v. Coakley, the case in which the U.S. Supreme Court voted unanimously to throw out Massachusetts’ original buffer zone law.

At that time, I asked a question.

Will New Hampshire officials have to hit up the taxpayers for a similar settlement, or will they do the sensible thing and drop the case? Will the New Hampshire House and Senate make that decision for us by repealing the buffer zone law?

I wouldn’t have guessed when I wrote those words that they’d still be apt today, as 2016 draws to a close.

In a few weeks, legislators will have their third opportunity to repeal the law and end the prospect of billing the taxpayers for defending it. An LSR (bill proposal) has already been filed by multiple sponsors.

The New Hampshire legislature failed in 2015 and 2016 to repeal New Hampshire’s buffer zone law. Like the scrapped Massachusetts law on which it was based, New Hampshire’s law was enacted with First Amendment restrictions without any documentation that less-restrictive means had been tried in order to control activity around abortion facilities.

With Granite State ingenuity, though, abortion providers have come up with a way around litigation: no abortion facility has chosen to post a zone. So much for claims that zones were necessary to protect patient safety. A federal judge turned away a challenge to the law by peaceful pro-life witnesses, ruling that since the New Hampshire law hadn’t actually been used against anyone, there was no case to decide.

Those plaintiffs have asked the First Circuit Court of Appeals to keep the challenge open. Litigation is going on even though buffer zone fans might wish otherwise.

Giving abortion providers the right to set “zones” within which the First Amendment is suspended does not protect anyone from violence or intimidation.

Calling the New Hampshire law “narrowly tailored” (lookin’ at you, Governor Hassan) doesn’t make it so. Chief Justice Roberts’s words in McCullen strike uncomfortably close to home. [Emphasis added.}

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.

New Hampshire’s law protects no one, is unenforced, and could become very expensive in court. Take it off the books.