Before the Clearwater City Council voted unanimously on March 2 to create a buffer zone at an abortion clinic due to volatile confrontations with protesters, Florida Preborn Rescue member Allen Tuthill warned what would happen next.
“The intention of this ordinance is to suppress free speech of pro-life sidewalk counselors,” Tuthill said at the lectern. “I believe the taxpayers of Clearwater are going to be buying an expensive lawsuit if this passes.”
Now Tuthill and the Pinellas Park-based Preborn Rescue have filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Clearwater. The nonprofit organization alleges the demonstration-free zone that allows patients to access the Bread and Roses Women’s Health Center violates protesters’ First Amendment rights and “targets the speech of people with a pro-life viewpoint.”
The lawsuit, filed May 26 and amended Wednesday, is one of several challenges to buffer zones at clinics across the nation at a time when access to abortion has been eroded in many states. Florida Preborn’s complaint asks a U.S. District Court judge in Tampa to issue an injunction to prevent Clearwater from enforcing the buffer zone and to award monetary damages and attorneys fees.
“The city cannot legally favor one side of an issue, nor may it silence speakers on the public sidewalks without giving them adequate alternative means to communicate their particular message,” said Tyler Brooks, senior counsel with Thomas More Society, a conservative legal group and one of several firms representing the plaintiffs.
The buffer zone, marked with signs and white paint on the ground, prohibits protesters from entering the health center’s driveway or the portion of sidewalk within 5 feet of either side of the driveway. Violators can be issued a civil citation and $130 fine.
Former police Chief Dan Slaughter told council members that weekly demonstrations had escalated to dangerous levels, with protesters blocking the driveway and knocking on car windows as patients entered and exited the facility. At the meeting, he showed a video of footage from his officers’ body cameras that captured the confrontations.
Clinic volunteers, called patient escorts, described their fears that it was only a matter of time before a protester hurt somebody with their tactics.
“It has reached a boiling point and even (people) walking their dogs or people going into surrounding businesses are verbally assaulted,” patient escort Jean Johnston told the council.
The city of Clearwater did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit.
But before the council approved the buffer zone, City Attorney David Margolis explained that the ordinance was a more modest version of similar measures passed around the country. He said it was a way to protect patients’ rights to access care while preserving the First Amendment rights of protesters.
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“It does not prevent the protesters from being heard,” Margolis said. “It does not push them across the street, it does not push them out of earshot, it doesn’t even really push them out of eyesight.”
Other such buffer zones across the United States have also been challenged in the courts.
On May 16, an anti-abortion group also represented by the Thomas More Society sued the city of Carbondale, Illinois, over an ordinance it passed in January that blocks protesters from approaching people within 100 feet of health care facility entrances.
Minneapolis passed an ordinance in January that “prohibits the obstruction of entrances and driveways to abortion clinics” and was sued by an anti-abortion group in April, The Associated Press reported.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and the federal right to abortion last summer, which led to bans in 14 states, clinics across the country have reported an escalation in protests.
Abortion remains legal under the Florida Constitution. But the state last year imposed a new ban on most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, a law that is being challenged in state court. In April, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill to ban most abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.
Clearwater’s buffer zone does not apply to “authorized security personnel employees or agents of the hospital, medical office or clinic engaged in assisting patients and other persons to enter or exit the clinic,” according to the ordinance.
In the lawsuit, attorneys for Florida Preborn Rescue allege this exception “discriminates based on viewpoint” because it allows clinic volunteers with pro-abortion views within the buffer zone.
The lawsuit states that members of Florida Preborn Rescue “typically engage people entering the clinic in conversation and, when appropriate, by handing them literature.”
But because the buffer zone prevents protesters from entering the driveway or coming within 5 feet of the driveway on the sidewalk, “it is impossible for Plaintiffs to hand any leaflets to people in cars entering or exiting the Clinic, even though leafletting is one of Plaintiffs’ main First Amendment activities at the Clinic,” the lawsuit states.