Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Brown vs City of Pittsburgh = Free Speech Law Suit

BrownComplaint.pdf (application/pdf Object)

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Anonymous said...

Group challenges limits on abortion clinic protests

Tuesday, March 28, 2006
By Rich Lord, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

A Christian advocacy group filed a federal court challenge yesterday to a city ordinance that limits protests outside abortion clinics.

The 3-month-old law bars protesters from getting within eight feet of people approaching medical facilities unless they have the person's permission, and keeps them 15 feet from clinic or hospital doors.

"I believe that the ordinance is unconstitutional and violates the freedom of speech," said Elizabeth Murray, an attorney for the Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund, which is spearheading the litigation.

Women's Law Project senior staff attorney Susan Frietsche, who helped draft the ordinance, called the suit "an attempt by outsiders to attack a law that is really working well for the citizens of Pittsburgh."

According to the lawsuit, Indiana Township resident Mary Kathryn Brown has "engaged in peaceful sidewalk counseling and leafletting" outside Allegheny Reproductive Health Center in East Liberty for 15 years.

In late January, according to the complaint, Ms. Brown, 43, tried to approach within eight feet of someone entering the clinic and was threatened with arrest by a city police officer.

At around the same time, she distributed anti-pornography literature in the same area. The officer allowed that, the complaint says.

"The ordinance was enforced so as to allow [Ms. Brown to distribute] information concerning pornography, but to prohibit pro-life speech, so that is viewpoint discrimination," said Ms. Murray.

Ms. Frietsche countered that the complaint "seems to be saying that [the city] didn't enforce the ordinance enough."

Asked whether Ms. Brown protested abortion and pornography specifically to create the grounds for the lawsuit, Ms. Murray did not directly answer. She said Ms. Brown would be available to speak to the media later in the litigation process.

The ordinance "keeps her from having an influence on people at the clinics" because she can't get close enough to have a conversation, Ms. Murray said.

The complaint names the city, Mayor Bob O'Connor and council.

Mr. O'Connor, who was not in office when the ordinance was passed, said his administration "will certainly support the law.... It's the law, and that's what we will adhere to."

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Thomas M. Hardiman, an appointee of President Bush. During his confirmation process in 2003, Judge Hardiman did not provide his views on abortion, saying only that he'd abide by existing and future Supreme Court decisions.

He is on vacation this week. The lawsuit asks the court to stop the city's enforcement of the ordinance, and if the fund files a motion for an immediate injunction, that could be heard by another judge this week.

The two sides in the abortion debate agree on one thing: The legislation has changed the dynamic of clinic protests. They disagree on whether that's a good thing.

"It certainly has helped," said Claire Keyes, director of Allegheny Reproductive. "We are not getting nearly as many complaints from patients that they are being grabbed or leaflets shoved in their pockets."

"It has caused us to have to post our counselors so much further down the street," said Joseph Parente, director of Operation Rescue Pittsburgh, a pro-life group. "In the name of public safety, we've actually been pushed off the sidewalk."

The 12-year-old Alliance Defense Fund has recently fought for pro-life license plates and for prayer groups in college dormitories. On its Web site, it lists as its allies groups that focus on fighting pornography and preventing gay marriage.
(Staff writer Paula Reed Ward contributed. Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542. )