The Constitution guarantees everyone a right to free speech. But it doesn’t require anyone to listen.
That is the principle that members of the Portland City Council’s Public Safety Committee should keep in mind Tuesday when they consider creating a buffer zone for protests outside the Planned Parenthood clinic on Congress Street.
The city should create a buffer zone that would allow women a way to enter the building without forcing them to have close contact with intimidating protesters. That doesn’t put any limit on what the protesters say, but it does protect the interests of a woman who choses not to pay attention.
This is how it works now: A woman entering a medical facility for an extremely personal procedure is forced to walk past protesters who yell Bible verses and shout insults, calling her a murderer if she choses to end her pregnancy.
The verbal assaults continue after the woman has left the public space and enters what is supposed to be a private consultation room where the protests are still audible.
The protesters say they are only exercising their First Amendment rights, and vow they will take their case to court if they are told to move down the street from the building entrance. An appeal of a similar buffer zone case from Massachusetts is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court this term. There is no way to know where the court is headed, but the city would stand on firm legal ground under current court precedent.
In 1999, the court upheld buffer zones around an abortion clinic in Colorado, saying that it did not interfere with a speaker’s right to express his beliefs, only with his ability to approach an unwilling listener. This preserves the concept of free speech in a democracy, in which all positions can be freely aired and the people decide.
The Planned Parenthood protesters, however, are interested in a different kind of speech.
They are not making a public presentation as much as trying to get individual women to change their minds about getting an abortion.
The First Amendment gives them the right to protest abortion, but it does not give them the right to insert themselves into that private matter on an individual level.
Moving the protesters away from the clinic door does not inhibit speech, but it does give women a chance to keep their personal health decisions private. The committee should propose a buffer zone ordinance, and the council should pass it.