Free to speak outside Pittsburgh abortion centers

NICK EICHER, HOST: Up next on The World and Everything in It: the freedom to persuade. 

Pro-life sidewalk counselors rely on First Amendment free speech protections to talk to women outside abortion centers. As long as they’re on public property, they can pray, hold signs, and encourage mothers to choose life.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: But some cities have so-called “buffer zones.” Local lawmakers design those buffer zones to keep pro-life volunteers far enough away that they can’t talk to women or give them any information that might help them change their minds.

A federal appeals court in Pittsburgh recently ruled in favor of prolifers who fought one of these ordinances. Joining us now to talk about it is Steve West. He’s an attorney and writes the weekly Liberties roundup for WORLD Digital. Good morning, Steve!

STEVE WEST, REPORTER: Hey, good morning Mary.

REICHARD: Start by telling us about the ordinance itself. What’s it say? 

WEST: Well like a lot of other cities, Pittsburgh attempted to regulate pro-life and pro-abortion groups that gather in front of the abortion facilities, uh, by passing an ordinance. And the ordinance just says basically that you can’t come within 15 feet of the facility to congregate, patrol, picket, or demonstrate. Those were the words that the law uses. So they pray in a yellow semicircle on the sidewalk and if you step over it for one of those reasons, you are in violation of the law.

REICHARD: Well, tell us who are these pro-life volunteers who are out there? 

WEST: Well, one of them is Nickki Bruni, she’s the local director of the pro-life organization called 40 Days for Life. And so she and other women from that organization would on any given day come out and stand in front of the abortion facility. They’d each work a two hour shift. And they weren’t picketing or yelling, protesting, that kind of thing. But simply praying silently and attempting to have some conversations with women that went into the clinic. They offered them some resources about fetal development and options other than abortion. And sometimes they were, in fact oftentimes, ignored. Sometimes women would get angry. But sometimes women would change their mind and you know, come back out, uh, talk with them and end up carrying their child to term. She told me about one instance recently where a woman came in with her aunt and her aunt yelled at her, but then she came back out 15 minutes later and apologized and said that she thought the Lord had put her there. So Bruni was able to drive her to a pregnancy life care center nearby. That baby’s due any day.

REICHARD: So a happy ending to that story. What did the court say in issuing this decision?

WEST: Well, the court didn’t strike down the law. But it did limit its application. You know, said it didn’t apply to a peaceful one-on-one conversations on any topic or conducted for any purpose at a normal conversational volume or distance. In other words, use your inside voice and you can try and have a conversation with anybody on the public sidewalk and interpret the law in such a way as to avoid a constitutional issue, which courts often try to do that.

REICHARD: Now does it seem likely the city will try to appeal the decision?

WEST: Well there’s no word about that yet. Of course it’s not time to file the appeal. The deadline hasn’t passed. But  given Supreme Court precedent and odds against the court taking—the Supreme court taking the case, I’d say it’s unlikely.

REICHARD: Steve, Pittsburg isn’t the only city that has tried to enforce an ordinance like this one. And the Supreme Court even took up a challenge to one of them. Remind us what the justices said in that case.

WEST: Yeah, I think you’re thinking about the 2014 case McCullen v. Coakley. And there the court struck down a Massachusetts law. It just, it just flatly prohibited anybody from standing within 35 feet of an abortion facility. There’s no way to construe that law in a constitutional manner. So a unanimous court just struck it down. They didn’t all agree on the rationale, however. And that may make a difference in future cases. That kind of has to do with the level of scrutiny afforded the law. That is how hard a look they give it. And so Chief Justice Roberts said that the law was neutral on its face. It applied to everybody. So only an intermediate level of scrutiny applied. That just means the government has to show it has a reason for the law and that other things that tried to deal with the problem did not work.

So Justice Scalia wrote a concurring opinion. That means he agreed with the result, but he said the rationale was ridiculous, only he said it a little more eloquently than that. He said the state knew that the only ones that are really impacted by the law were abortion protesters. So it really was aimed at content. He would’ve applied what’s called strict scrutiny that requires the government to show a compelling interest and that it used the least restrictive means to get to its objective. That’s a whole lot more difficult. So the bottom line is if Scalia’s view would carry the day, we have a lot less of these restrictive laws and volunteers like Nikki Bruni would have a much easier time talking with women and many more lives would be saved.

REICHARD: Steve West writes the weekly Liberties roundup for WORLD Digital. You can find it at Steve, thanks so much for joining us today!

WEST: My pleasure, Mary.

40 Days for Life Pittsburgh

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