Six pro-life women are suing the city of Burlington in federal court, claiming an ordinance that bans protests within 35 feet of Planned Parenthood and other abortion and health clinics is an unconstitutional violation of free speech.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Burlington on Tuesday challenges an ordinance passed in July that creates a fixed buffer zone with a radius of 35 feet from the premises of reproductive health care facilities. Violators can be fined up to $500 per offense.
The plaintiffs are six women from around Vermont who demonstrate regularly outside the Planned Parenthood clinic with signs, prayer, singing and literature. They oppose abortion, the lawsuit says, as well as artificial birth control because "they believe it harms women."
The women want to offer "sidewalk counseling" to women entering Planned Parenthood but say the buffer zone requires them to stand at a distance where people entering the clinic can't read their signs or take their brochures. The lawsuit notes that several of the woman are mothers and grandmothers who have experienced emotional trauma from past abortions and miscarriages and want to share those experiences with women entering the clinic.
The lawsuit, filed by Connecticut-based constitutional lawyer Michael J. DePrimo, argues that the ordinance is written so broadly as to encompass not just health centers like Planned Parenthood, but also fertility clinics, hospitals, public and private schools, drugstores and supermarkets that have pharmacies inside them. DePrimo also argues the sheer size of the buffer zone — extending 35 feet from the furthest edge of the clinic's parking lot — makes the no-protest zone along St. Paul Street effectively 228 feet in length.
DePrimo argues in the lawsuit that the ordinance is vague and says the city has not specified the activities that constitute "patrolling", "congregating" or "demonstrating" under the ordinance. For instance, praying aloud may be banned inside the zone, but is silent prayer permissable? He also argues the ordinance is a "content-based restriction" because it applies only to reproductive health care facilities and not to medical facilities in general.
"The fact that certain messages may be offensive to some of their recipients does not deprive them of constitutional protection," the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit also argues the law has been unevenly enforced, citing a protest outside the Burlington office of Care Net, a Christian health care and counseling service, by the group Fed Up Vermont. The lawsuit claims Burlington police did not enforce the 35-foot buffer zone when pro-choice demonstrators rallied on the sidewalk outside Care Net's Colchester Avenue office.
City councilors who backed the ordinance said it was carefully tailored to protect the free speech rights of pro-life demonstrators while ensuring that patients, often in vulnerable states, could utilize health care services without feeling harassed or intimindated. Planned Parenthood officials, who helped write the ordinance, said the buffer zone was modeled on similar laws in other states that have, so far, stood up to constitutional challenges.
City Attorney Eileen Blackwood said Thursday that the city had not yet been served the lawsuit so could not comment on it. Of the buffer zone ordinance in general, though, Blackwood said, "The city has looked into it and believes it is constitutional."
Seven Days will have more on this story after we've had more time to dig into the lawsuit. Check back on Off Message for updates.
File photo of protester in front of the Pine Street clinic by Cathy Resmer