In its first meeting since the Supreme Court effectively voided Burlington's buffer zone, the City Council voted unanimously Monday to start "urgently investigating and supporting legally defensible alternatives that ensure women’s safety and access to healthcare services."
On June 26, the nation's highest court ruled that a buffer zone law in Massachusetts, created to prevent protesters from coming within 35 feet of reproductive health centers, violated the First Amendment.
Burlington had erected a similar buffer zone in 2012, but upon the advice of city attorney Eileen Blackwood, the city stopped enforcing it after the ruling. Part of the city's law remains in place. Blackwood explained that while the zone itself has been dismantled, people are still prohibited from "obstructing, detaining, hindering, impeding, or blocking a person's entry or exit from a clinic."
The sidewalks of St. Paul Street, where Planned Parenthood runs a clinic, have gotten more crowded, according to Jill Krowinski, public affairs director for Planned Parenthood in Vermont. Prior to the ruling, a handful of protesters showed up one or two days a week. Now they're outside four to five days a week, and last Saturday, there was crowd of roughly 20 people, according to Krowinski.
As the city council's ordinance committee considers its options, Krowinski described the tactic that Burlington's Planned Parenthood is employing: "The more protestors we see, the more greeters we’ll have."
The Supreme Court ruling suggested that Massachusetts' buffer zone wasn't "narrowly tailored," and people seeking reproductive health services could be protected using other means. It stated, “A painted line is easy to enforce, but the prime objective of the First Amendment is not efficiency.”
One of the potential long-term options suggested by Blackwood would make it a criminal rather than a civil offense to violate the still-standing part of the city's ordinance. Krowinski said that Planned Parenthood is working with its other affiliates to find alternatives, too. One possibility they are considering: asking the City Council to establish a "bubble" in lieu of a buffer that would create a barrier around patients rather than a building. The Supreme Court upheld Colorado's "bubble" law in 2000.
At Monday's meeting, Krowinski described protestors "persistently following and engaging with patients even when they say they are not interested" and taking photos and video footage of people entering the St. Paul Street facility.
Two of those protestors were also at the city council meeting and disputed her account. "We are being misrepresented here," said Agnes Clift. "We will continue to be there praying and offering support and literature to people."