Abortion clinic 'buffer' bill sparks emotional free speech, personal privacy debate
CONCORD -- Arguing issues of personal privacy and freedom of speech, lawmakers and activists on both sides of the abortion debate lined up Tuesday for and against legislation that would keep demonstrators at least 25 feet from all clinics in New Hampshire where abortions are performed.
"This legislation is about public safety" while respecting First Amendment rights, the chief sponsor, state Sen. Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, said during a three-hour hearing on Senate Bill 319 before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Soucy said the bill was filed at the request of several Manchester residents, some of whom, she said, have had "challenging, unpleasant, frightening and even threatening experiences" being approached by pro-life activists who regularly appear next to the Planned Parenthood facility on Penacook Street.
A 25-foot buffer would allow the activists to express themselves in close proximity to the clinics while allowing clients and staff to enter and exit without being closely approached or "intimidated," Soucy said.
But Rep. Kathleen Souza, R-Manchester, said if there is any aggressive behavior or violence at clinics, "it is on the other side."
Souza said most Thursdays, pro-life activists gather at or near the entrance to the Planned Parenthood parking lot, pray and "reach out to women."
But said she has had her "car window shot out with a pellet gun," was accosted by pro-choice activists and saw pro-life signs ripped up, all further than 25 feet from the clinic.
Francis Hynes of Windham, who said he regularly attends the pro-life demonstrations, testified, "The only violence occurring in Manchester is occurring inside the building."
Soucy said the bill is modeled on a Massachusetts law creating a 35-foot buffer around abortion clinics. That law is being challenged on First Amendment grounds and was argued on Jan. 15 before the U.S. Supreme Court. A decision is expected in the late spring.
Soucy said her bill was tailored to address "many of the concerns raised in that case."
The New Hampshire bill's "statement of findings and purpose" says recent demonstrations "outside of reproductive health care clinics have resulted in the fear and intimidation of patients and employees," and have caused patients to believe "their safety and right to privacy are threatened."
The bill forbids anyone from being on a "public way or sidewalk adjacent to a reproductive health care facility within a radius of 25 feet of any portion of an entrance, exit or driveway."
A law enforcement officer would issue one verbal warning to anyone who encroaches the buffer, and anyone who does not comply would be guilty of a violation and subject to a minimum fine of $100.
The bill also allows the attorney general or county attorney to seek a court injunction to prevent further violations.
In addition to prime sponsor Soucy, the bill has four senior state Senate cosponsors -- Republicans Jeb Bradley of Wolfeboro, who is the Senate Majority Leader, Bob Odell of Lempster and Nancy Stiles of Portsmouth, and Democrat Lou D'Allesandro of Manchester.
The committee is expected to vote a recommendation on the bill for the full Senate next week.
Soucy said the bill "respects" the First Amendment rights of demonstrators and said that state laws already establish a 10-foot buffer around polling places and forbid picketing within 150 feet of a funeral or memorial service. She also noted the Supreme Court itself has established a 250-foot buffer around its building in Washington.
Cosponsor Stiles asked the committee "not to view it in terms of whether you consider yourself pro-life or pro-choice, and understand that this proposal is to improve public safety and patient privacy," which she called "an important state interest that we should be united on."
Democratic Rep. Candace Bouchard, a Concord city councilor said the bill would protect women "without infringing on the rights of others to protest nearby."
But Rep. Jane Cormier, R-Alton, said the bill "unconstitutionally inhibits free speech rights" and "singles out one subject and favors one side of the debate.
"In New Hampshire we have not heard of loud, raucous protests at abortion clinics," Cormier said. "People at New Hampshire clinics are seeking to offer abortion alternatives. They just want to have a quiet conversation with those willing to receive it."
But Jennifer Frizzell, Planned Parenthood of Northern New England senior policy adviser, said the organization's clinics "have never been free of picketing or protest activity," and "the volume and intensity have increased" in the past two years.
She said "patient harassment and a "need for on-site security" has increased since opponents began using a residence across the street as "a headquarters for protest activity."
Frizzell also said there were eight incidents involving police at the Penacook Street facility in 2013.
Barbara Marzelli testified that when she had an abortion at the Concord Feminist Health Center, she was "brutally harassed" by a "horde of almost gleeful, angry individuals" and was "swarmed not only with ridicule and hateful words, but also with personal questions, and pictures."
Marzelli said that when she left the building, she was chased by protesters "shouting all the way and threatening me to stop."
"These people are not fanatics," countered Elizabeth Breudek of New Hampshire Right-to-Life. "They offer compassionate help to mothers who need relief."
Attorney Michael Tierney said the bill is unnecessary because a state statute already forbids blocking access to public ways and a federal law forbids the use of "force, threat of force or physical obstruction" to prevent someone from providing or receiving "reproductive health services."
Meredith Cook of the Diocese of Manchester, also opposing the bill, said a 25-foot buffer would take "sidewalk counselors" across the street.
"The right of free speech includes the right to attempt to persuade others to change their views," said Cook, speaking on behalf of Bishop Peter Libasci.