Pro-life advocates in Jackson, Mississippi have filed a lawsuit against a new city ordinance that would restrict protesters’ ability to approach people and demonstrate outside abortion clinics.
The appellants, who are volunteers for a national organization called Sidewalk Advocates for Life, often congregate outside the state’s last abortion clinic, the Jackson Women’s Health Organization. That facility performs abortions up to 16 weeks.
Sidewalk Advocates for Life trains volunteers to offer women alternatives to abortion, and says that nearly 7,000 women nationwide have freely chosen not to abort in the past five years thanks to their advocacy. They describe their ministry as “prayerful and peaceful.”
The ordinance prohibits protesters from approaching within eight feet of another person— unless that person consents— for the purpose of handing a leaflet, displaying a sign, engaging in oral protest, or educating or counseling a person within 100 feet of a healthcare facility.
The Jackson City Council adopted the ordinance Oct. 1, and it is scheduled to take effect Oct. 31, the AP reports.
The ordinance also prohibits congregations or demonstrations within 15 feet of a healthcare facility entrance, as well as shouting and amplified sound with 100 feet as long as the area is marked as a “quiet zone.”
The lawsuit, filed by members of Sidewalk Advocates for Life and the Mississippi Justice Institute, notes that pro-life protesters often have to shout in order to be heard above the loud music that the abortion clinic plays in order to drown out the protesters’ speech.
Violators of the new ordinance could face a fine of up to $1,000 or up to 90 days in prison, or both.
The lawsuit argues that the ordinance has a chilling effect on the protesters’ speech, prevents them from engaging in peaceful assemblies, and “irreparably harms persons patronizing the abortion facility by denying them access to useful information regarding the alternatives to abortion.”
The suit also argues that the ordinance is a content-based regulation of speech, since it prohibits certain speakers from participating in certain types of speech while allowing others to engage in the same type of speech.
Brett Kittredge, director of marketing and communications with Mississippi Center for Public Policy, told CNA that the lawsuit could make its way to the Mississippi Supreme Court.
The Mississippi Constitution provides for an even stronger protection of free speech than the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, he said.
“It says in our constitution that [free speech] is sacred— that it is something we hold with the utmost respect, treasure, and reverence,” Kittredge told CNA.
“And so we feel...that this is a free speech issue above all else. It's not about whether you support one issue or the other, whether you take one side or another on abortion, it's a matter of should people have the right to assemble, have the right to speak freely and convince others of their speech, and we believe that's central to a free society.”
Sidewalk Advocates for Life says in Jackson alone, 30 women this year have turned away from the abortion clinic and sought alternatives in the area.
“The sidewalk counselors aren't there to yell at anybody, aren't there to scream at anybody, they're just there to tell people that don't know there is another option that you don't have to do this,” Kittredge said.
“So we are ready to challenge this, and we are obviously looking forward to a positive ruling in favor of our clients.”
The AP notes that a federal appeals court in February 2019 upheld the constitutionality of a 2009 Chicago ordinance that created an 8-foot buffer zone outside medical facilities, while several other cities, such as Philadelphia, have had buffer zone ordinances struck down.
A 2007 Massachusetts “buffer zone” law forbade sidewalk counseling within 35 feet of an abortion clinic, but the Supreme Court in June 2014 unanimously ruled it a violation of the First Amendment. The law imposed “serious burdens” on the counselors, the court wrote, adding that sidewalks have traditionally been a forum for “the exchange of ideas.”
Colorado and Montana both have buffer zone laws in effect. Across the Atlantic, the High Court of England and Wales upheld a buffer zone order around a London abortion clinic in a July 2018 decision, which pro-life advocates are now appealing.
The appellants in the Mississippi lawsuit have requested a hearing date for the parties to appear and present oral arguments.