Activists Can Fight Pittsburgh Buffer Zones

     (CN) — The Third Circuit reversed the dismissal of anti-abortion activists’ First Amendment lawsuit challenging a Pittsburgh buffer-zone ordinance shielding abortion clinics from demonstrations.
     Lead plaintiff Nikki Bruni and others engage in “sidewalk counseling” outside of a Pittsburgh Planned Parenthood in an attempt to persuade women not to have an abortion.
     They claimed in court that the Pittsburgh “buffer zone” ordinance violates their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
     Pittsburgh argued that its law, which says no one “shall knowingly congregate, patrol, picket or demonstrate” within designated buffer zones, does not solely apply to anti-abortion activists.
     A federal judge upheld the zones last year, but city attorney Matthew McHale conceded at a Third Circuit hearing in November that none of the hypothetical situations Judge Kent Jordan gave, including handing out commercial leaflets or engaging in “heated political discussion,” would violate the ordinance.
     The Third Circuit ruled in favor of the anti-abortion activists on Wednesday.
     “Considered in the light most favorable to the plaintiffs, the First Amendment claims are sufficient to go forward at this stage of the litigation,” Jordan wrote for the three-judge panel. “The speech at issue is core political speech entitled to the maximum protection afforded by the First Amendment, and the city cannot burden it without first trying, or at least demonstrating that it has seriously considered, substantially less restrictive alternatives that would achieve the city’s legitimate, substantial, and content-neutral interests.”
     In accordance with his line of questioning at oral arguments, Jordan found that the ordinance may not be sufficiently narrowly tailored to protect a woman’s freedom to seek an abortion while not overly burdening the activists’ right to try to convince those women to change their minds.
     The 15-foot buffer zone significantly limits activists from reaching their intended audience, Jordan found, and the city has not shown that less-restrictive alternatives would not serve the same interest.
     However, on the undeveloped record, the panel said it could not make a decision on whether the ordinance was overbroad or not.
     The Third Circuit remanded the case to the lower court to make findings on the “legitimate sweep” of the buffer zone law, and whether the government substantially exceeds that sweep.

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