Court ruling allows pro-life counseling despite ‘buffer zones’ outside clinics

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Dominique Hildebrand/Post-Gazette

Planned Parenthood and other proponents of abortion are calling a Pittsburgh ruling on clinic protests a victory, but in fact it looks more like a win for the pro-life movement.

A federal appeals court Friday upheld a Pittsburgh ordinance that created buffer zones between abortion protesters and clinic entrances, rejecting arguments that it unconstitutionally violated First Amendment free speech rights.

That means the anti-abortion protesters who regularly show up outside Planned Parenthood’s Downtown clinic on Pittsburgh’s Liberty Avenue must continue to stand outside a yellow semicircle painted on the pavement.

But in affirming a lower court’s ruling, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals made an interesting concession to pro-life activists. Friday’s opinion declared that the city’s 14-year-old ordinance does not ban so-called “sidewalk counseling” — efforts to deter individual women from having abortions.

While the ordinance says that people cannot “knowingly congregate, patrol, picket or demonstrate” inside the buffer zone, it does not prohibit other types of speech.

As long as the sidewalk counselors’ efforts to persuade women are peaceful, quiet and conducted as personal, one-on-one conversations, they are allowed to take place inside the 15-foot buffer zone around the clinic, the court said.

“The city is happy the court has once again upheld this sensible law protecting patients from harassment,” Timothy McNulty, spokesman for Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said Saturday.

Nikki Bruni — the lead plaintiff among a group of five people who in 2014 challenged the buffer zones on constitutional grounds and sued the city, the mayor and City Council — said Saturday that she welcomed the decision.

“I’m happy about it. I’m encouraged,” said Ms. Bruni, 54, of Verona. “I’m hoping that many more lives will be saved, that we’ll have a chance to reach more women. We’ll be able to stand closer to the door if we’re trying to offer information to people who are going there. We’ll just have better access to them.”

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