The stretch of sidewalk on Congress Street outside Planned Parenthood of Northern New England was almost entirely free of people Friday morning – a marked change from Fridays over the past year.
Missing were the anti-abortion protesters who have stood there each week with signs showing enlarged pictures of fetuses in the womb and bloody body parts from abortions.
Instead, they were across the street.
The Portland City Council on Monday enacted a 39-foot buffer zone around the entrances to the clinic, saying the restriction balances free speech rights with the right of patients to seek health care free of intimidation.
Although new ordinances usually take effect 30 days after their adoption, the council made it an emergency measure, so it was enforceable immediately.
An orange line across the sidewalk just down the street from Planned Parenthood marked the edge of the buffer zone. Three of the 20 protesters stood there with signs, while most stood across the street.
“We’ve been keeping tabs on how many people we haven’t been able to have a conversation with,” said Leslie Sneddon, one of the protesters.
Previously, she would hand out pamphlets and talk to people who walked by the building, whether they were going in or not.
“Now we are not going to be able to reach them,” Sneddon said.
The protesters have said they will sue the city, claiming it is violating their First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly. Donna Hebert, who started the protests more than a year ago, said nothing has been filed yet.
“But it will happen,” she said.
A similar dispute in Massachusetts over a 35-foot buffer zone outside clinics there has already worked its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the decision in that case could directly affect Portland’s new ordinance.
Maine Attorney General Janet T. Mills announced this week she is supporting the effort to defend buffer zones in the Massachusetts case, which was upheld by an appeals court and will likely be argued in the Supreme Court early in 2014.
Mills signed onto a “friend of the court brief” with other attorneys general who support the use of buffer zones.
“A woman has a right to access health care without fear and harassment,” Mills said in a written statement.
In Portland, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England said it was the first Friday morning in a year that a patient did not come in and talk about feeling intimidated or harassed.
“We are incredibly appreciative of the action taken by the Portland City Council Monday night and are encouraged by today,” Nicole Clegg said in an email.
The only people allowed within Portland’s new buffer zone during the regular protest time Friday morning were those passing through, entering buildings or getting on buses, as well as a police officer and greeters for Planned Parenthood, who have been guiding patients to the door of the clinic.
The officer asked people to leave if they lingered within the zone, including one young couple who paused to eat pastries.
“The intent is that you can only be there for certain purposes,” said Trish McAllister, Portland’s neighborhood prosecutor, about the way the ordinance is written. Waiting for a bus and heading to an office or store are among the exceptions in the ordinance.
“It’s regulating conduct rather than what is being said. It’s very content-neutral,” McAllister said.
However, the buffer zone was not enforced later Friday afternoon after the protesters had left.
Marguerite Fitzgerald, another protester, said the silencing of free speech is setting a precedent that could have far-reaching consequences.
“Today it’s us,” she said. “Tomorrow it will be you.”
Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: