Less than a day after the Madison City Council approved an ordinance creating buffer zones at entrances to health care facilities, the law received a legal challenge.
On Wednesday, a group of anti-abortion groups and activists filed a lawsuit in federal court against the city, arguing that the new law limiting acceptable behavior on a public way or sidewalk near health care facilities violates First Amendment rights.
The group is seeking a temporary restraining order and an injunction to prevent the city from enforcing the buffer zones.
The City Council approved the ordinance Tuesday . It creates a protective zone within 160 feet of health care facilities to allow patients and others to enter and exit without obstruction.
Under the ordinance, people on public way or sidewalks within that 160-foot radius may not approach, without consent, another person within 8 feet for the purpose of oral protest, education, counseling, passing leaflets or handbills, or displaying signs. Violations of the ordinance are punishable by fines ranging from $300 to $750.
Such protests can already be prohibited on private property.
The lawsuit states that it is “practically impossible” to pass a leaflet or have a conversation with somebody on a public sidewalk from 8 feet away.
It also takes issue with the ordinance’s definition of “health care facility” because in addition to hospitals and clinics, the definition includes office spaces used by physicians and common areas of multi-use buildings, such as the Lucky Building, 777 University Ave., which houses University Health Services along with commercial and residential tenants. The lawsuit identifies prominent locations along State Street and near the Capitol Square that it says would be subject to buffer zone rules because of the definition.
Gwen Finnegan, director of Madison Vigil for Life, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, testified at Tuesday’s City Council meeting that the city has taken stances sympathetic to other protesters but is choosing between issues based on political beliefs.
“Until now, Madison has always cherished First Amendment rights so it’s troubling that some council members would attempt to impose a gag rule on free speech because they disagree with pro-life people,” she said.
The ordinance, introduced by Ald. Lisa Subeck, 1st District, was prompted by continued protests at Planned Parenthood’s clinic at 3706 Orin Road, the lone Madison abortion provider and one of only four in the state.
Subeck, a former director of NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin, said Tuesday that the ordinance is based on a similar one from Colorado. Buffer zones outlined in that ordinance were upheld as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000’s Hill v. Colorado ruling.
Subeck declined to comment on the lawsuit Wednesday and directed inquiries to the City Attorney’s Office.
City Attorney Michael May said his office hadn’t had time to thoroughly review the lawsuit but said based on the Hill decision, he thought the legality of the ordinance would be upheld.