The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the city can restrict congregating, picketing, patrolling and demonstrating in the immediate vicinity of clinics, but the zone restrictions do not apply to "calm and peaceful" one-on-one conversations.
The buffer zone law concerns any hospital or health care facility, but the case arose over demarcated areas outside two Pittsburgh abortion clinics.
"Despite the assumptions of both parties, nothing in the plain language of the ordinance supports a construction that prohibits peaceful one-on-one conversations on any topic or conducted for any purpose at a normal conversational volume or distance," wrote Judge Cheryl Ann Krause. "In short, the ordinance as written does not prohibit the sidewalk counseling in which plaintiffs seek to engage within the zone."
Krause wrote that the city had an interest in addressing reports of violent incidents, obstruction of patients going into and coming out of the clinics, and aggressive confrontations.
The plaintiffs had argued the buffer zones make it difficult to communicate their message and to distinguish passers-by from the clinic patients they want to reach.
Kevin Theriot, a lawyer for the women who challenged the ordinance, said the decision will permit them to perform "peaceful counseling for women." A decision on whether to appeal the decision upholding the ordinance will be made next week, he said.
City lawyers had argued "sidewalk counseling" is a form of demonstrating. Mayoral spokesman Tim McNulty said the city was "happy the court has once again upheld this sensible law protecting patients from harassment."
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