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Court considers legality of Pittsburgh buffer zones around abortion clinics

A “buffer zone” outside Pittsburgh abortion clinics prevents anti-abortion advocates from exercising their First Amendment rights, their lawyer argued Wednesday in U.S. District Court, Downtown.

The Alliance Defending Freedom sued in September on behalf of five abortion opponents challenging a city ordinance that requires them to stay out of the 15-foot buffer zone around clinic entrances.

The lawsuit is being heard more than five months after the Supreme Court voted unanimously to strike down a Massachusetts law that banned protesters within 35 feet of abortion clinics, ruling that the law infringed upon their First Amendment rights.

Likewise, Pittsburgh’s buffer zone “bans more speech than is necessary,” argued Elissa Graves, a lawyer with the alliance, a religious advocacy law firm. Associate City Solicitor Michael Kennedy said nothing stops the protesters from talking to patients outside the buffer zone.

U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon heard more than three hours of testimony and arguments before giving both sides until Dec. 19 to reach a compromise. If they can’t, the attorneys will have 30 days to file legal arguments before she rules.

Kimberlee Evert, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania, said that before the city enacted the ordinance that established the buffer zone in 2005, she received several complaints from patients who said they had been assaulted or harassed. Since the ordinance went into effect, there have been fewer calls to police, Evert said.

“What the buffer zone has done is provided a safe place where people can feel free from physical intimidation,” Evert said.

Nikki Bruni of Verona testified that while she “occasionally” is able to get her message across to women entering the Planned Parenthood location on Liberty Avenue, Downtown, the yellow, spray-painted buffer zone restricts her and others from having in-depth conversations with women about alternatives to abortion.

Bruni, campaign director of 40 Days for Life in Pittsburgh, a twice-a-year, anti-abortion event, said Planned Parenthood security guards prevent demonstrators from entering the zone, even if it is to walk across to get to the other side.

“We’re told we can’t even have our toes on the line,” she said.

Graves said the people who stand outside Planned Parenthood’s Liberty Avenue location two or three times each week are not violent and do not try to obstruct the clinic entrance.

“They only engage in peaceful communication and distribute fliers,” she said.

Graves said the city only enforces the ordinance outside abortion clinics, making it clear the ordinance is selectively enforced and used to censor her clients.

Kennedy said the buffer zones are “content neutral” because they apply to all health facilities, including hospitals and dental offices. Kennedy said the ordinance allows the city to maintain open access to the buildings.

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected].


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