PITTSBURGH, March 10, 2015 (LifeSiteNews.com) – A U.S. District judge appointed to the bench by President Barack Obama has ruled that a bubble zone banning pro-lifers from engaging in free speech within 15 feet of Pittsburgh's abortion facilities does not violate their constitutional right to free speech.
In her decision last Friday, Judge Cathy Bissoon said that “while plaintiffs’ message is restricted in that they cannot continue to walk alongside women as they approach within 15 feet of the entrance, that method of communication is not foreclosed or effectively stifled.”
Bissoon did not dismiss all claims by five pro-life activists and the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which represented the plaintiffs. The judge said that the city has until March 20 to respond to the plaintiffs' claim that Planned Parenthood escorts may go inside the bubble zone and talk to women, which would indicate selective enforcement by the office of Mayor Bill Peduto.
City lawyers claim that the bubble zone is “content neutral” because it does not just apply to abortion facilities or pro-life counselors and activists. However, the city did admit in court that only Pittsburgh's two abortion facilities are finding the zone problematic.
Bissoon said the city council is not a defendant in the case, leaving the suit to continue against Peduto alone. While the council passed the bubble zone ordinance, Bissoon said that only Peduto should be considered a defendant, because his office takes care of enforcement.
ADF Litigation Counsel Elissa Graves said that “Americans, including those who are pro-life, have the freedom to speak with whomever they please on public sidewalks.” Graves also said that ADF may appeal the decision.
The zone itself has been controversial since its creation in 2005. ADF-allied lawyer Lawrence Paladin told LifeSiteNews last year that “the city of Pittsburgh passed an ordinance that we fought at the time. It had a bubble zone and a floating buffer zone around people who walk into the facility. The lawsuit, Brown v. City of Pittsburgh, was ruled in favor of us. The city was told it could keep one or the other, and it kept the buffer zone.”
Paladin said that the law was designed so that there would “be no pro-or-con speech within that zone. The Supreme Court case from [last] summer changed the legal analysis, so we are now challenging the buffer zone. This case is about the right to speak within the buffer zone. This is an anti-free speech buffer zone.”
In the Supreme Court case McCullin v. Coakley, the Supreme Court ruled that a 35-foot bubble zone in Massachusetts is unconstitutional. However, it left smaller bubble zones in place, and “endorsed the right of states to create bubble zones around abortion facilities as long as they are more narrowly tailored, especially if the state establishes a legal history of intimidation.”
According to Paladin, the decision was enough for the five plaintiffs — pro-life activists and sidewalk counselors Nikki Bruni, Julie Cosentino, Cynthia Rinaldi, Kathleen Laslow, and Patrick Malley — to decide to press their case in court.
Graves told LifeSiteNews that the Pittsburgh lawsuit is intended to test the Supreme Court's limits in McCullen. That decision, said Graves, has “contradictions” with the 2000 Supreme Court decision in Hill v. Colorado — which said that bubble zones are constitutional.
“McCullen did not overturn Hill, directly, but it provided information that contradicted Hill,” explained Graves. “That's why we are bringing this case, to test the boundaries of those contradictions. We want to make those boundaries better defined. We believe those buffers are unconstitutional under McCullen, which in some ways does contradict Hill.”
“McCullen said if you make a law targeting speech that makes a listener feel uncomfortable, that's an inappropriate restriction. Hill seemed to reject that notion. It's very difficult to reconcile those two cases, which is why Justice Scalia — in his concurring opinion in McCullen – criticized the Court for not considering overturning Hill.”