The city of Portland has settled a lawsuit filed by anti-abortion activists against an ordinance that established a 39-foot no-protest zone around a Portland clinic that provides abortions.
The city will pay each of the plaintiffs nominal damages of $1, and a total of $56,500 in legal fees, according to a consent judgment approved Oct. 8 by Judge Nancy Torresen in U.S. District Court in Portland.
In October 2014, Torresen had dismissed part of a lawsuit filed against the city by the protesters, alleging that the ordinance, which established a buffer zone around the entrance to Planned Parenthood’s Congress Street health center, was a violation of their free-speech rights.
The U.S. Supreme Court in June 2014 had ruled that similar 35-foot buffer zones around clinics in Massachusetts violated free-speech rights. A few weeks later, the Portland City Council repealed its ordinance and protests outside the clinic resumed in mid-July 2014. The city subsequently filed a motion to dismiss the case.
But Torresen, acting on the city’s motion, ruled that the protesters could seek damages for the violation of their constitutional rights during the time the buffer zone was in effect.
Jessica Grondin, spokeswoman for the city of Portland, said the City Council “acted swiftly” by repealing the city ordinance at its first meeting after the Supreme Court ruled in the Massachusetts case.
“The city thereafter also filed a motion to dismiss the case, which was granted, in part, by the court and ultimately dismissed most of the counts in the plaintiffs’ amended complaint with the exception of the nominal damages claim,” Grondin said in a written statement. “Overall, the city is pleased that this matter is finally resolved so as to avoid any additional unnecessary protracted litigation.”
An attorney for the activists – Daniel and Marguerite Fitzgerald of Shapleigh and their children and Richmond resident Leslie Sneddon – said last year, after the city repealed its buffer zone ordinance, that they wanted to continue the federal court litigation against the city to set a precedent.
Attorney Erin Kuenzig of the Thomas More Law Center in Michigan said the case was never about the money and that the $1 amount was all her clients ever sought for damages.
“This judgment is significant because it is a formal and binding legal recognition that the city of Portland violated the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights through its ‘buffer zone’ ordinance. There was no legitimate basis for banning the plaintiffs and other law-abiding citizens from using the public sidewalk surrounding Planned Parenthood’s abortion clinic during the company’s business hours,” Kuenzig said in an email Wednesday. “Hopefully, this judgment will stand as a reminder to the city of Portland that the First Amendment must not be so callously disregarded in the future. Should the city again bow to the will of Planned Parenthood and attempt to silence pro-life sidewalk counselors though ill-advised legislation, the Thomas More Law Center will not hesitate to zealously defend the First Amendment from another unlawful attack by the city of Portland.”
The failed buffer zone ordinance was a second defeat for the City Council related to city ordinances that were challenged on First Amendment grounds. The council enacted a ban on panhandling on street medians in 2013. The city lost an appeal in federal court in the median case and decided on Oct. 6 that it would not pursue further legal efforts before the U.S. Supreme Court.