A family from Shapleigh is suing the city of Portland in an effort to overturn its ordinance prohibiting protests in front of the Planned Parenthood health clinic on Congress Street.
Daniel and Marguerite Fitzgerald and their children claim that the buffer zone around the clinic, approved by the City Council in November, violates the First and Fourth amendments of the U.S. Constitution, which protect free speech and prohibit unlawful search and seizure, respectively.
“Maine citizens have been using the public streets and sidewalks to debate political, social and religious issues since well before the founding of the United States,” the Fitzgeralds claim in their lawsuit. “(The ordinance) essentially and unlawfully privatizes public ways held in the public trust for use by all citizens.”
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court on Wednesday – the day a federal judge ruled that a different city ordinance, banning loitering and panhandling in street medians, was unconstitutional.
Named as defendants in the Fitzgeralds’ lawsuit are the city, Mayor Michael Brennan and each city councilor. A city official said Thursday that the lawsuit did not come as a surprise. Protesters indicated even before the council approved the buffer zone that they would sue the city for violating their First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly.
The buffer zone prohibits people from gathering within 39 feet of the entrances of Planned Parenthood’s clinic. It was enacted in response to anti-abortion protests by a group that gathered there regularly on Friday and Saturday mornings, when the clinic provides abortions.
The clinic’s patients and staff testified before the City Council that the demonstrators threatened and intimidated them. Protesters argued that they were only exercising their First Amendment right to free speech.
The ordinance has not prevented protesters from demonstrating near the clinic, said Nicole Clegg, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England.
“What is different today is that we no longer see the sort of harassment and intimidation we saw prior to the ordinance,” Clegg said in a prepared statement. “The atmosphere outside of our health center is one of peaceful coexistence – which shows this law effectively balances the right to privacy with free speech rights.”
Portland’s ordinance is modeled after a state law in Massachusetts, which is facing a legal challenge that could effectively resolve the dispute in Portland.
The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case earlier this year, and several justices expressed skepticism about the buffer zone. The nation’s highest court is expected to rule by this summer. If it strikes down Massachusetts’ law, Portland could be forced to drop its buffer zone.
According to the lawsuit against Portland, the Fitzgeralds are Evangelical Christians who are raising their seven children in that faith.
They claim that the ordinance prohibits pro-life speech in a traditional public forum. They describe their protests as peaceful, and intended to inform women of alternatives to abortion, such as adoption or other means of financial or emotional support.
Protesters are still allowed to demonstrate across the street from the clinic, but “the plaintiffs wish to avoid raising their voices or speaking from long distances,” the complaint says.
City officials were reviewing the lawsuit Thursday and could not respond in detail, said Deputy City Manager Sheila Hill-Christian.
“I can share that we are not surprised by this development and stand by our position, which is that the preservation of rights to unimpeded access to health care for our citizens must be protected,” she said in an email.
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: [email protected]