September 30, 2019 (Mississippi Center for Public Policy) — The Jackson city council will soon file their official votes on an ordinance targeted at shutting down protests outside the last abortion clinic in Mississippi.
The abortion provider lies in the heart of Fondren, one of Jackson's few thriving neighborhoods, and one with further development incoming, including a new hotel across the street from the clinic.
Protesters and counselors seeking to offer alternatives to abortion regularly coordinate efforts outside of the building. In regard to this ordinance, council members ought to consider whether the current situation truly warrants the curtailing of free speech in this capacity.
The new ordinance would ban individuals from approaching within eight feet of any person, unless that person consents to receiving a leaflet. The proposed rule would also ban people from protesting, congregating, or picketing within fifteen feet of the abortion center and ban any amplified sound.
Proponents of the regulation have cited noise complaints and the potential for heightened conflict as the reasoning behind the legislation. However, opponents of the regulation have noted that the noise is often escalated by the abortion center who will turn up music while sidewalk participants attempt to speak with those around the abortion center and that the regulation curtails their free speech rights.
Local businesses and the new hotel seem to be concerned about the impact that these protests can have on business and seem to be in favor of the ordinance change. However, our right to free speech does not end where business interests begin, and we should be wary of choosing economic development over protections for our constitutional rights.
Perhaps, what the council members are missing is the fact that no matter what they do, protesters and sidewalk counselors who attempt to offer alternatives to abortion, will still find a way to carry out their work. Freedom of speech should rarely be curtailed, and leaders should always seek to err on the side of advancing speech rather than stifling it.
Furthermore, there are better options on the table to solve existing issues than to overregulate free speech en masse. Rather than ban all those seeking to protest or offer counsel, the city ought to better enforce existing noise ordinances, if noise truly is an ongoing issue. If we don't execute the laws on the books, then new ordinances stand meaningless and will be ignored. If people are being assaulted, as some claim, again, we have laws on the books.
More largely, in regard to ongoing neighborhood development, at the end of the day, the abortion center can paint itself bright pink colors, play music, and attempt to be a part of the more hip, growing Fondren community, but it can't cover up what happens inside its walls, a continued dark stain on the neighborhood and the city.
Mississippi has a tainted history when it comes to the state using its power to stifle free speech and public protests. City leaders should tread cautiously when it comes to regulating speech they don't like.
Published with permission from the Mississippi Center for Public Policy.