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Pittsburgh’s Abortion Clinic Buffer Zone Law Upheld

Oct. 18, 2019, 3:20 PM

A Pittsburgh ordinance drawing a 15-foot buffer zone around medical facilities where abortions are performed doesn’t violate the free speech rights of “sidewalk counselors,” the Third Circuit said.

The ordinance by its terms doesn’t apply to anti-abortion protesters who engage in “peaceful, one-on-one” conversations with people entering the clinics, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit said Oct. 18. Thus, it’s valid as applied to those protesters, the court said.

The ordinance prohibits four activities: congregating, patrolling, picketing, or demonstrating within 15 feet of a hospital or health-care facility entrance. The sidewalk counselors’ activities don’t meet the definition of any of these terms, the court said.

The ordinance is content-neutral, the court added. It doesn’t treat anti-abortion speech differently from any peaceful one-on-one conversations about other subjects within the buffer zone, the court said. The ordinance would be “highly problematic” if it did, the court noted.

The court also said the ordinance is valid on its face, as it’s narrowly tailored to serve significant governmental interests. The interests the city sought to protect—ensuring unimpeded access to health-care services, protecting public safety, and properly allocating law enforcement services—are legitimate, the court said.

The ordinance is narrow in scope, the court added. It applies only to a relatively small area and limited types of protests, it said. The ordinance doesn’t prevent protesters, demonstrators, or picketers from being seen and heard, or from speaking outside the zone, it said.

Judge Cheryl Ann Krause wrote the opinion, in which Judge Morton I. Greenberg joined.

Judge Thomas M. Hardiman wrote a separate concurring opinion.

Alliance Defending Freedom and Lawrence G. Paladin Jr. of Pittsburgh represented the sidewalk counselors. The City of Pittsburgh Law Department represented the city.

Life Legal Defense Foundation, Pro Life Action League, Sidewalk Advocates for Life, Pacific Justice Institute, Concerned Women for America, and National Legal Foundation filed amicus briefs supporting the counselors.

The National Abortion Federation, Women’s Law Project, and International Municipal Lawyers filed amicus briefs supporting the city.

The case is Bruni v. City of Pittsburgh, 3d Cir., No. 18-1084, 10/18/19.

To contact the reporter on this story: Mary Anne Pazanowski in Washington at mpazanowski@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Jo-el J. Meyer at jmeyer@bloomberglaw.com; Patrick L. Gregory at pgregory@bloomberglaw.com