CNA Staff, Nov 18, 2020 / 07:01 pm (CNA).- A law that curtailed pro-life outreach at the last abortion clinic in Mississippi has been repealed by the city of Jackson, leading to the dismissal of a legal challenge against the ordinance.
“This is a major victory for free speech for Jackson and the state of Mississippi,” Aaron Rice, director of the Mississippi Justice Institute, told the NBC affiliate WLBT.
The ordinance, adopted in October 2019, prohibited protesters from approaching within eight feet of another person, unless that person consents, for the purpose of handing a leaflet, displaying a sign, engaging in oral protest, or educating or counseling a person within 100 feet of a healthcare facility.
The ordinance also prohibited congregations or demonstrations within 15 feet of a healthcare facility entrance, as well as shouting and amplified sound with 100 feet as long as the area is marked as a “quiet zone.”
Violators of the ordinance faced a fine of up to $1,000 or up to 90 days in prison, or both.
The lawsuit, filed by Concord, N.C. resident Philip Benham, was joined by members of Sidewalk Advocates for Life – Jackson and the Mississippi Justice Institute. It said that pro-life protesters often have to shout in order to be heard above the loud music that the abortion clinic plays in order to drown out the protesters’ speech.
The appellants in the lawsuit were volunteers for Sidewalk Advocates for Life, and they often congregated outside the state’s last abortion clinic, the Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The facility performs abortions up to 16 weeks into pregnancy.
Sidewalk Advocates for Life said the outreach had success in Jackson in 2019, when 30 women turned away from the abortion clinic and sought alternatives in the area.
“The sidewalk counselors aren’t there to yell at anybody, aren’t there to scream at anybody, they’re just there to tell people that don’t know there is another option that you don’t have to do this,” Brett Kittredge, director of marketing and communications with Mississippi Center for Public Policy, told CNA in October 2019.
Court documents said the repeal took effect Nov. 16. Although city attorney Tim Howard said the city council repealed the ordinances, WLBT was unable to determine at what council meeting the repeal took place.
Andy Taggart of the law firm Taggart, Rimes and Graham, who worked as pro bono counsel on the case, welcomed the move.
“The city of Jackson has rescinded an ordinance that should have never been the law to begin with, and at least for now, things are set right,” he said, according to WLBT.
The lawsuit argued that the ordinance had a chilling effect on the protesters’ speech, prevents them from engaging in peaceful assemblies, and “irreparably harms persons patronizing the abortion facility by denying them access to useful information regarding the alternatives to abortion.”
The suit also argued that the ordinance was a content-based regulation of speech, since it prohibited certain speakers from participating in certain types of speech while allowing others to engage in the same type of speech.
At the national level, Sidewalk Advocates for Life trains volunteers to offer women alternatives to abortion. The organization says that nearly 7,000 women nationwide have freely chosen not to abort in the past five years thanks to their advocacy. They describe their ministry as “prayerful and peaceful.”
Colorado and Montana both have buffer zone laws in effect at abortion clinics.
A federal appeals court in February 2019 upheld the constitutionality of a 2009 Chicago ordinance that created an 8-foot buffer zone outside medical facilities, while several other cities, such as Philadelphia, have had buffer zone ordinances struck down, the Associated Press has reported.
A 2007 Massachusetts “buffer zone” law forbade sidewalk counseling within 35 feet of an abortion clinic, but the Supreme Court in June 2014 unanimously ruled it a violation of the First Amendment. The law imposed “serious burdens” on the counselors, the court wrote, adding that sidewalks have traditionally been a forum for “the exchange of ideas.”
In the U.K., the High Court of England and Wales upheld a buffer zone order around a London abortion clinic in a July 2018 decision. Pro-life advocates lost their appeal of the decision in August 2019.