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An Uncertain Future For Pittsburgh's Abortion Protest Buffer Zone

It’s uncertain what will happen to that the yellow semi-circle marking a 15-foot buffer zone outside Planned Parenthood’s downtown Pittsburgh location.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling Thursday striking down the 35-foot protest-free zones outside abortion clinics in Massachusetts, saying that law violates the First Amendment Rights of protesters.

But the question remains if the high court’s decision will have on Pittsburgh’s eight-year-old law.

“The Pittsburgh ordinance has already been subject to a constitutional challenge and been scrutinized by several levels of federal courts and approved,” said Sue Frietsche, senior staff attorney with the Women’s Law Project, “and so it is presumptively constitutional.”

According to Frietsche, the Supreme Court found that the Massachusetts law isn’t “narrowly enough tailored” because it affects more free speech than necessary to achieve the government’s goal of protecting women and insuring safe public sidewalks.

“The court did not declare today that all fixed buffer zones are unconstitutional, and even Justice [Antonin] Scalia agrees with that," Frietsche said. "He says, 'With a dart here and a pleat there such regulations are sure to satisfy the tailoring standards.’”

In 2006, the city of Pittsburgh adopted an ordinance that established a 15-foot buffer zone outside the entrances to abortion clinics as well as an 8-foot personal bubble around individuals. Mary Brown, an abortion opponent from Indiana Township, filed suit against the city, and in 2009 U.S. District Judge Nora Berry Fischer ruled the combination of the bubble and the buffer violated protesters First Amendment rights.  The city then dropped the bubble and the 15-foot stationary  buffer has remained in place since.

Frietsche said the question of what will happen to Pittsburgh’s buffer zone ordinance depends on the differences between the city’s law and the Massachusetts statute, and one of the differences is literally 20 feet.

“The court focused a lot on the fact that a significant portion of the sidewalk was off limits to abortion opponents," she said. "Thirty-five feet is a significant portion. Is 15 feet a significant portion? That’s a question.” 

But will that question — 35 feet versus 15 feet — wind up in court?

“This (Massachusetts law) was not a big sweeping ruling that changed constitutional standards," Frietsche said. "It was really very narrow and very nuanced, and unfortunately for us what that means is that we’re going to have to look at it pretty carefully to see what guidance it gives us about whether the Pittsburgh ordinance conforms to the teaching of the court.”

A spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania would only say that representatives of that organization will meet with city officials to discuss the future of the ordinance.