August 19, 2013

Maine Voices: Like panhandlers, Planned Parenthood protesters should be moved

The city has already shown that it is possible to protect public safety and individual free-speech rights at the same time.

By JASON PELLETIER

GORHAM - Should we applaud the decision of Portland's City Council to ban people from standing on median strips, eliminating a potentially serious risk to public safety? Protecting personal freedoms and liberties should always be a priority, unless it involves a legitimate public safety concern.

Many people are thrilled with the median panhandling ban, which just took effect. The public's quiet agreement with this policy supports the case for the minor inconvenience to where someone may stand when it involves public safety.

I was very disappointed that people allowed this precedent to happen, until I saw the potential benefit. This ban creates the opportunity to use the same reasoning to justify another, more "impactful" ban, creating a much-needed 30-foot buffer around the entrance to Planned Parenthood.

The obvious similarities between the panhandler standing on a median strip and the protester standing in front of Planned Parenthood are hard to miss. They both hold signs passionately advertising their purpose, using guilt to cause discomfort, eliciting a desired response from the audience. Both their chosen locations create safety concerns for themselves and the public.

The safety concern for panhandlers standing on medians is the possibility they could suddenly step into the street and get hit by a passing vehicle, or create a situation where a motorist has to stop suddenly, causing a serious accident.

Similarly, the protesters' intimidating hostility in front of Planned Parenthood is increasingly creating a safety concern for themselves and the public trying to enter or exit the building. The close proximity of protesters to patients creates a situation where verbal confrontations could quickly turn disastrously physical.

The City Council has effectively used public safety as a justification for creating a ban against standing on median strips. City councilors emphatically deny it had anything to do with the unsightliness of panhandlers holding signs requesting money and everything to do with an unsafe situation. How could we not worry for the safety of the public?

Most comments regarding the ban are all positive, followed by a hearty "good riddance." People quickly embraced the "safety" excuse to justify their willingness to allow the ban to succeed. The usual vocal defenders of personal freedoms regretfully seem to fall silent when the rights of the poor are involved, and this time was no exception. However, they failed to realize the precedent such a ban would set.

Hopefully, this precedent will only be used for the benefit of the public. Some argue the panhandlers' rights to free speech have not been reduced, saying they are still allowed to hold their signs, asking for money.

Sure, standing on the sidewalk, further away from motorists than in the median, may reduce a panhandler's effectiveness in getting his message out, but it will be safer for the public. We all agree safety trumps freedom of location.

Thus, it seems obvious that the City Council should pass another safety ordinance creating a 30-foot buffer zone around the entrance to Planned Parenthood, thereby reducing a potentially disastrous safety risk to patients, staff and volunteers. Simply put, a minor infringement on the right to stand and protest in front of Planned Parenthood is outweighed by the increased safety of the public.

If only it could be that easy. Those previously silent defenders of personal rights will finally stop sitting on their hands and come out swinging to protect the free-speech rights of protesters to stand where they want, at the same time trivializing a woman's right to enter and exit Planned Parenthood without being harassed or intimidated.

We must remember, the protesters' free-speech rights will not be removed. They will still have their constitutional right to enthusiastically hold their signs, while verbally sharing their beliefs, a mere 10 yards away, thus greatly reducing a legitimate public safety concern.

The precedent has been set: A safety concern justifies a slight infringement on where a person may stand. People who care about safety should take this opportunity to encourage the Portland City Council to restrict how close protesters can stand to the Planned Parenthood entrance.

Jason Pelletier is a resident of Gorham.

 

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