MADISON, Wis. (CN) - Anti-abortion protesters have asked a federal judge to crack down on "anti-speech bubbles" brought about by hospital buffer-zone legislation.
Ordinance No. 32827, known as The Buffer Zone Ordinance, creates 320-foot-wide and larger "bubbles" on public ways or sidewalks in Madison. In such areas, people may not get within eight feet of another person, without consent, for the purpose of oral protest, education, counseling, passing leaflets or handbills, or displaying signs.
Violations of the ordinance are punishable by fines ranging from $300 to $750.
Madison Vigil for Life, Students for Life Madison and eight activists challenged the law in a Feb. 25 federal complaint.
"It is practically impossible to pass a leaflet or handbill to a person from eight feet away," the 34-page lawsuit states.
The anti-abortion groups say that the ordinance's definition of "health care facility" is too broad, and that "the City has no justification for creating even one anti-speech bubble in traditional public fora, much less creating hundreds of bubbles throughout Madison."
Because The Buffer Zone creates these anti-speech bubbles on each entrance of any "hospital, clinic or office that is used by a licensed physician," the city has converted miles of city sidewalks and public ways into "no-leafleting corridors," according to the complaint.
"Physician offices exist on almost every populated street in the city," and the bubbles "are often extending in much larger diameters where the building has multiple entrances," the groups say.
Any external sidewalks and public ways outside a city-county building that sits near physicians' offices would also allegedly fall into the bubble zone, "effectively banning education and person-to-person free speech activities on issues related to the City Council and its business in those areas."
The First Amendment "contemplates no possible justification for such a measure," the groups say.
"For decades Madison has been the scene of robust free speech and exchanges of ideas, including nationally significant demonstrations to the present day," the complaint also states. "The freedom of speech is at its apex on public streets and sidewalks when citizens wish to persuade other citizens by means of leafleting and personal education. The government cannot arrogate to itself the power to categorically wall off speaker-initiated free speech from large swaths of public ways and sidewalks just because they happen to be near health facilities. No city can convert acres of public ways and sidewalks into anti-leafleting zones. No city can insulate from public education the controversial health research activities by physicians at a major university that is regularly the subject of leafleting about animal experimentation, genetic food modification, human embryonic research and other issues. And no city can target speech based on its content or viewpoint, such as because it consists of 'protest' or 'education' as opposed to asking for directions or the time of day, or because it is politically motivated against speakers who disagree with the city's views."
Gwen Finnegan, director of Madison for Vigil for Life, echoed this sentiment.
"No city can create a gag rule banning leafleting on miles of public sidewalks in places like campus, State Street and Capital Square, just to drive its brazen pro-abortion agenda against peaceful people who offer women compassionate choices outside of abortion facilities," Finnegan said in a statement.
The plaintiffs' attorney Matt Bowman with Alliance Defending Freedom called the law massively overbroad under the First Amendment.
"The right to leaflet on the public sidewalk is the crown jewel of the freedom of speech, but the city washed that right away with its gag-rule ordinance that creates hundreds of bubble zones banning leafleting around Madison," Bowman said in a statement.
The groups want a temporary restraining order and an injunction to prevent the city from enforcing the buffer zones.
Alderman Lisa Subeck, 1st District introduced the Buffer Zone Ordinance, reportedly prompted by continued protests at Planned Parenthood Madison East, the sole provider of abortion services in the city, and one of only four clinics in the state.
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