PHILADELPHIA (CN) - An abortion center that employed a human shield to block protesters from reaching patients will not have to face those protesters' First Amendment claims at trial, a federal judge ruled, but the public nuisance claim survived.
Allentown Women's Center director Jennifer Boulanger told Courthouse News that the decision "is a tremendous victory."
"We're under constant attack," she said. "We are picketed by a group of anti-abortion extremists who harass and intimidate staff and patients on a frequent basis. I get picketed at home by terrorists who openly believe in the use of force to stop abortion."
The suit arose after two anti-abortion activists sought to exploit a loophole to a 2007 settlement of an earlier civil rights action. Kathleen Kuhns and Kathleen Teay had agreed not to enter a 7-foot-wide crosswalk running from the center's parking lot to its entrance while areas were in use by clients and staff.
When the city settled the prior suit - in which the center was not a defendant - Boulanger said it paid 13 protestors $10,000 each. That $130,000 payment was "a very empowering act for them," Boulanger said.
Though the consent judgment barred protestors from entering the crosswalk while it was occupied by staff and clients, and despite signs promulgating that prohibition, the protestors "didn't think that meant their limbs," Boulanger said. "They thought that meant their feet."
The center's director told Courthouse News that the protestors started forming a gauntlet whereby they would line up on either of the crosswalk and block it by extending their arms.
"They were attempting to force people to take literature by putting it directly in front of them so they had no choice [but] to either take it or walk right into it," she said.
"We have a high respect for free speech, but we have no tolerance for intimidation and harassment," she said.
The protesters filed suit in June 2008, represented by the American Catholic Lawyers Association, claiming that the clinic conspired with the city of Allentown to use "body block" tactics that would "turn a public forum into a private corridor for a long-favored business" in violation of the prior settlement.
In addition to the protection afforded by the settlement, the anti-abortion activists said that the clinic used 6-foot-high tarps, a "human shield or scrum" and "vocal noise" to block them from protesting on an adjacent sidewalk.
Boulanger, the clinic's director, said her staff resorted to the tarps out of serious safety concerns.
"We had problems with patients and staff being touched," she said.
One protestor in particular - who is not a party to the current suit- maintains a relationship with a "rabid" ring of likeminded federal prisoners, she said.
In a ruling Thursday, U.S. District Judge James Gardner dismissed the city and chief of police from the suit.
"Plaintiffs have not established that the city defendants are obligated to ensure that plaintiffs are able to counsel and provide literature to women entering through the crosswalk," Gardner wrote.
He also granted the women's center and its director partial summary judgment, finding that the First Amendment claim must fail.
But Gardner refused to grant summary judgment for the center and director Jennifer Boulanger on the public nuisance claim, which alleges that the body-blocking tactics stifled pedestrian and vehicle traffic. The judge noted that the center failed to defend the claims that using "escorts" for patients and staff amounts to a public nuisance.
Christopher Ferrara, with the American Catholic Lawyers Association, told Courthouse News that ""we're investigating all our options, including an appeal, and I'm not going to comment on any allegations at this time."
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