After Supreme Court Rules, Burlington To Amend Clinic Buffer Zone Ordinance

Jul 2, 2014

The city of Burlington is no longer enforcing an ordinance that prohibits people from demonstrating or protesting within a 35-foot buffer zone surrounding family planning clinics. The city ordinance is similar to a Massachusetts law that was struck down last week by the U.S. Supreme Court.

City attorney Eileen Blackwood said in a statement that she will ask the city council at its July 14 meeting to amend the ordinance in light of the high court's ruling. She said that a separate section of the ordinance that prohibits people from knowingly obstructing or blocking entry into a clinic was not affected by the high court's ruling and remains in effect.

"To be clear, between now and city council action on July 14, 2014, no enforcement action will be taken against any individuals for demonstrating, congregating, picketing, or patrolling within the 35-foot buffer zone, as long as they do not obstruct, detain, hinder, impede, or block another person's entry to or exit from a reproductive health care facility," Blackwood said in her statement.

Updated at 5:55 p.m. July 2:

Planned Parenthood of Northern New England released this statement in response to attorney Blackwood's statement:

"While we applaud city for upholding the enforcement of obstructing a person's entry to a reproductive health care facility, we remain deeply frustrated that protestors can continue to harass patients. We call upon the city council to make this a top priority since this is a public safety and an access issue," Planned Parenthood said. 

"Regardless of today's decision, we remain committed to protecting the privacy and safety of our patients and will work to ensure that women are able to make their own health care decisions without fear of harassment or intimidation."

Updated at 8:00 a.m. July 3:

Blackwood said that the court looked at the case as a free speech issue. "The buffer zones burden substantially more speech than necessary to achieve the Commonwealth's asserted interests," she quoted from the decision. "And I think that's the heart of their ruling that there are narrower ways in order to deal with the conduct that Massachusetts was trying to deal with, and we think that message would apply to Burlington as well."

In response to Planned Parenthood's concerns about harassment of patients, Blackwood said that there's nothing in the ruling that allows that conduct.

"Part of what they certainly can ask and what I suspect the city council may consider is whether or not there are other provisions that the city would want to put into its ordinance. The Supreme Court gave Massachusetts a number of suggestions for other options that it could try and I suspect that our city council will be looking at those," Blackwood explained.  

"The court was very moved by the fact that plaintiffs in this case were talking a lot about their wanting to have quiet conversations with people and not hurl invective at them. And that the buffer zone prohibited someone from identifying someone who was going to the reproductive health care facility and being able to have a quiet conversation with them. So that was a powerful part of the court's ruling, not trying to protect someone from harassing or screaming at someone else," she said.

Before the ruling, the city's ordinance faced challenges in the U.S. District Court and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Blackwood expects a portion of those challenges will go away if the buffer zone is removed.