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No Decision in Court Case Challenging Pittsburgh Buffer Zone Outside Planned Parenthood

For now, the 15-foot buffer zone outside of Pittsburgh’s downtown Planned Parenthood location will remain in place.

A federal judge in Pittsburgh has delayed ruling on a lawsuit challenging the city ordinance that requires protesters and other abortion opponents to stay outside a painted yellow line marking the zone. The lawsuit contends this violates the Constitution.

“At the heart of the First Amendment is to be able to go on the public sidewalk and engage in a one-on-one conversation with another citizen about an important issue, and it’s none of any city’s business to prohibit those kinds of conversations, those quiet offerings of information on a public sidewalk,” said Matt Bowman, an attorney with the Alliance Defending Freedom, a religious advocacy law firm representing five Pittsburgh abortion opponents.

The main plaintiff, Nikki Bruni, testified that she and others in her group do not shout or harass potential visitors to Planned Parenthood. She said she offers what is called sidewalk counseling, and that the 15-foot buffer zone prevents her from doing that.

“All that we are asking for is the ability to offer women information and help in this one-on-one, quiet context that the city says is not acceptable,” said Bowman.

The challenge of the buffer zone came after the Supreme Court struck down a larger, 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics in Massachusetts. U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon pointed out difference between the McCullen v. Coakley decision, but the plaintiffs said it still applies here. A federal appeals court upheld a previous settlement that struck down a related 8-foot "bubble zone" which kept protesters from getting close enough to hand clients leaflets. But the plaintiffs say the ordinance is still selectively enforced and used to censor them.

Attorneys for the city of Pittsburgh didn’t comment, but during testimony they said the buffer zone has resulted in fewer complaints at the Planned Parenthood office and should be upheld, adding that women wanting to enter the clinic should be able to do so free of obstructions.

Bissoon heard more than three hours of arguments and testimony before giving attorneys until Dec. 19 to reach a compromise. If they can't, the attorneys will have 30 days to file legal arguments before she rules.