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Wednesday, June 19, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Anti-Abortion Protesters Lose Home Picketing Suit

ORLANDO (CN) - Protesters who allegedly frightened a Planned Parenthood officer outside her home can not challenge a new law that forbids such demonstrations, a federal judge ruled.

Winter Park, Fla., passed the ordinance after 30 anti-abortion protesters lined up outside the home of Orlando Planned Parenthood CEO Jenna Tosh in August 2012 and would not leave until it began to rain.

They held signs with Tosh's name showing graphic images and phrases such as "baby killer." They shouted her name in between chants and songs.

Part of the ordinance passed the following month states: "It shall be unlawful for any person or persons to picket, protest or conduct any picketing or protesting activity within a buffer area of 50 feet from the property line of any dwelling unit in the city of Winter Park."

The city's stated purpose for passing the ordinance is "the harmony, peace and tranquility of persons residing in residential dwelling units in the city of Winter Park," and to protect those residents' right to "feel free" and "safe" in their homes

It did not prohibit any speech content or religious speech.

Winnifred Bell, Allura Lightfoot and Deanna Waller, a trio of self-styled "sidewalk counselors," sought an injunction against the city, its council and four city commissioners in their official capacities.

Though the protesters insist that the ordinance bans all residential picketing, U.S. District Judge Roy Dalton called that argument "a tortuous misreading of the plain language of the law."

He noted the ordinance leaves protesters with "ample alternative avenues for communication."

"Protesters may still enter residential neighborhoods in the City, 'alone or in groups, even marching. ... They may go door-to-door to proselytize their views. They may distribute literature.' They may camp out and form a picket line fifty-one feet away from the targeted residence, or down the street. They may parade through the neighborhood and past the targeted residence inside the fifty-foot buffer zone, so long as they do not loiter. If all that is not enough, they may apply to the city manager for even more space to protest abutting a residential zone, which the city manager must grant."

Winter Park's ordinance also serves a significant government interest and is narrowly tailored, according to the ruling.

"As the ordinance's scope - giving targeted residents a fifty-foot zone in which to enjoy a modicum of privacy - precisely mirrors the particular evil to be remedied - intrusive conduct directed at a particular target - the ordinance is sufficiently narrowly tailored," Dalton added.

The judge also rejected claims that the ordinance violates their right to the free exercise of religion.

"While the ordinance may, in part, impact religious groups seeking to proselytize beliefs, such as the one to which plaintiffs belong, it is not specifically directed at Christians or any other particular religious group: it applies to everyone," Dalton wrote.

"The object of the ordinance is not to infringe on the free exercise of religion, and though it may impact religiously motivated protesters, it impacts all protesters the same," he added. "The object instead is the protection of the city's residents in their homes from intrusive conduct, no matter the religious beliefs (or lack thereof) of the protesters outside."

In addition to denying both a restraining order and an injunction, Dalton dismissed the complaint with prejudice.

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