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Abortion opponents sue city over ordinance restricting protesters

A press conference was held Tuesday afternoon to discuss the lawsuit filed in federal court against the city's "Bubble Zone" ordinance. Photo by Natalie Watts.

Anti-abortion activists filed a federal lawsuit against City Hall on Tuesday, arguing that an ordinance restricting protesters from approaching people outside abortion clinics is unconstitutional.

The 2009 law states that within a 50-foot radius of a medical or healthcare facility, anyone with the intention of leafletting, “displaying a sign to, or engaging in oral protest, education, or counseling” must obtain individual consent before approaching within 8-feet of another person.

The use of force or threats of force are also prohibited.

Violators are subject to a $500 fine.

The lawsuit targeting the city’s so-called “bubble zone” ordinance was filed against the City of Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, Commissioner of Transportation for the city, Rebekah Scheinfeld, and Police Supt. Eddie Johnson.

In their complaint, abortion opponents claim that their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights are violated by the addition to the city’s Disorderly Conduct ordinance.

The ordinance singles out specific types of speech, said Stephen Crampton, special counsel for the plaintiffs. He also alleged the law was enacted without a “sound basis” and is vaguely worded, causing confusion as to its interpretation among enforcement officials.

Pro-Life advocates, Crampton argued, are singled out by the law. He alleged that abortion rights supporters and abortion clinic escorts are routinely exempt from the “8-foot bubble” rule while abortion opponents are threatened with arrest.

“Regardless of how one might feel of abortion itself,” Crampton said, selective application based on the speaker’s viewpoint is unconstitutional.

In a news release, Planned Parenthood of Illinois claimed that the ordinance is designed to permit Chicagoans to safely enter and exit medical facilities.

Brigid Leahy, director of public policy for Planned Parenthood of Illinois, defended the law as “neutral.”

Planned Parenthood escorts, in pink vests, stood outside the clinic during the press conference. Photo by Natalie Watts.
Planned Parenthood escorts, in pink vests, stood outside the clinic during the press conference. Photo by Natalie Watts.

“We warn clients on the phone about possible protests and that escorts are available to walk in with them,” she said. There’s a difference, Leahy said, between knowing there will be an escort and being approached by a stranger.

“The City’s ordinance protects the First Amendment rights of protesters,” said Bill McCaffrey, director of public affairs for the city’s department of law. McCaffrey also cited a similar statute in Colorado that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000.

The city can’t comment on pending litigation, he said, but it “will vigorously defend against this suit.”