In a victory for abortion clinics seeking to curtail raucous demonstrations, a federal appeals court Thursday upheld an injunction prohibiting anti-abortion demonstrators from disrupting operations of a Portland, Ore., women’s health center.
A court order barring protesters from shouting or chanting in a manner that interferes with services at the clinic does not violate the demonstrators’ free speech rights, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in a case that is likely to affect similar injunctions at clinics throughout the country.
Attorneys for Advocates for Life Inc., which organized the demonstrations at the Portland Feminist Women’s Health Center, said the decision was the first by a federal appeals court addressing the constitutionality of barring noisy demonstrations outside abortion clinics.
While the decision upholds the right of protesters to demonstrate peacefully outside a designated “free zone” near the clinic’s entrance, a panel of three judges said the First Amendment does not allow demonstrators to interfere with medical and counseling services of the clinic.
Clinic officials had argued that demonstrators’ taunts and screams had interfered with diagnostic and surgical procedures and cited one instance in which ambulance personnel were hampered coming into the clinic during a medical emergency.
“The health center has never taken the position that these protesters should be denied the right to express their views,” said Barbara Nay, who represented the clinic.
“But the rights of other people were being severely impacted by what these protesters were doing, and I think it’s important that the court said you can’t stand behind the First Amendment and justify any manner of expression; we have to find ways that accommodate everybody’s rights.”
Attorneys for Advocates for Life Inc. and four demonstrators who had been fined a total ofabout $15,000 for violating the injunction said the appeals court’s decision will have a chilling effect on activists who are seeking to exercise their constitutional rights.
“These injunctions have had a very inhibiting effect, because it’s the demonstrator’s word against the word of the abortion facility people, and if you violate the injunction, you face very stiff fines,” said attorney Henry Kane. “You’re a family man, and you know if the court believes perjured testimony, you are likely to lose your house, your car, a good part of your salary, and if that isn’t inhibiting, I don’t know what is.”
Kane said the defendants will seek a rehearing before the court based on decisions that have been handed down since the 9th Circuit heard oral arguments in the case, including a U.S. Supreme Court decision that barred demonstrations in front of an abortion physician’s house but permitted them along the street.
The 9th Circuit decision, written by Judge Procter Hug Jr. with the concurrence of Judges Jerome Farris and William C. Canby Jr., held that while the injunction “undeniably regulates political speech in a public forum,” it is based not on the content of the demonstrations, but on the need to protect the clinic from “loudness and physical intimidation.”
“We have no doubt that the interests that render reasonable the regulation of disruptive expression outside schools and courthouses also operate to allow regulation of disruptive expression outside a clinic where medical services including surgery are offered,” the court said.
The court also held that the injunction is not impermissibly vague simply because it fails to establish a decibel limit for disruptive shouting and chanting. But it modified the order to prohibit only shouting “in a volume that substantially interferes with the provision of medical services within the center, including counseling.”