CHICAGO — Anti-abortion activists filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday challenging the constitutionality of a Chicago ordinance that stops protesters from getting within 8 feet of people entering health care facilities without their consent.
The activists argue that the ordinance — which is similar to a Colorado law upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court — is vague, confusing and violates their free speech rights with its 8-foot “bubble zone” around people who are within 50 feet of clinic entrances. The buffer zones around hospitals and clinics have become “vast anti-speech zones,” according to the lawsuit.
More than a dozen cities and several states enforce similar zones around clinics with the aim of protecting abortion seekers from intimidation. A 1994 federal law — enacted in response to bombings, arson and violent protests directed at abortion providers — prohibits blocking access to abortion clinics.
The Chicago complaint, filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago, outlines the claims of two anti-abortion groups and four “sidewalk counselors” who want to hand out literature to women seeking abortions. They allege that Chicago police selectively enforce the ordinance, applying it only to them and not to volunteer escorts who walk with patients and, according to the lawsuit, take away anti-abortion literature patients accept from protesters.
The sidewalk counselors, according to the lawsuit, are peaceful and want to “express their deeply held religious convictions on a matter of great public concern, indeed, a matter of life and death.”
Attorneys from the Thomas More Society, a Chicago-based conservative law firm, filed the lawsuit on behalf of plaintiffs Veronica Price, Anna Marie Scinto Mesia, David Bergquist, Ann Scheidler, Pro-Life Action League and Live Pro-Life Group. The lawsuit names as defendants the city of Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld and Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson.
The Thomas More Society announced the lawsuit on a sidewalk outside a Planned Parenthood clinic on the Near North Side. Attorney Stephen Crampton argued that the law is unconstitutional.
“The city and its council, to do the right thing—ought to strike this law now, and not wait for a federal court to strike it,” he said. “But either way, this law is unconstitutional, it will be stricken, and we look forward to victory.”
Chicago’s ordinance is similar to a Colorado law that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in 2000. The law includes an 8-foot no-approach bubble zone within 100 feet of a clinic door.
Chicago’s law “is almost identical to a statute the Supreme Court has already upheld, except that our buffer zone is half the size,” said Chicago Law Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey in an email. “The city will vigorously defend against this suit.”
But attorneys for the anti-abortion activists say the U.S. Supreme Court in 2014 struck down a Massachusetts 35-foot buffer zone law, effectively overruling its earlier decision.
Abortion rights activists said buffer-zone laws protect women.
“I wish free speech was all that was going on outside these clinics,” said Vicki Saporta of the National Abortion Federation. “Unfortunately, there have been threats, intimidation, assault and stalking by anti-abortion extremists.”
Brigid Leahy, public policy director for Planned Parenthood of Illinois, said she is confident Chicago’s ordinance will be upheld.
“The Massachusetts case in 2014— That law was struck down because it was a fixed, 35-foot buffer zone which no one could enter,” she said. “Which is very different from the Colorado law, or the Chicago ordinance.”
However, Drexel University law professor David Cohen warns that the Supreme Court rulings leave some ambiguity.
“The court didn’t say, ‘Here’s how these two rulings work together,’” he said.
In Chicago, anti-abortion activists recently started wearing the same color vests as volunteer escorts with an icon that looks similar to Planned Parenthood’s logo, according to a Planned Parenthood statement about the lawsuit.
The bubble zone allows staff and patients to avoid being swarmed by protesters, said Linda Diamond Shapiro of Planned Parenthood of Illinois. “This small distance can make an enormous difference in keeping entrances accessible and reducing aggressive confrontations,” she said.