Pro-life sidewalk counselors in Pittsburgh scored a major victory in their challenge to a city ordinance barring them from talking to women entering abortion clinics. But they had to lose their case in order to win everything they asked for.
How did that happen? In an unusual twist of events, a federal appeals court upheld the ordinance’s constitutionality, but then ruled that sidewalk counselors aren’t covered by it.
The law in question requires that “no person or persons shall knowingly congregate, patrol, picket or demonstrate” in a prescribed 15-foot “buffer zone” outside the entrance of any hospital or healthcare facility. The 2005 ordinance was passed in response to demonstrations and physical altercations outside two abortion clinics.
When the city asserted that its ordinance applied to “sidewalk counselors” – people who engage in leafletting and “peaceful conversations at a normal conversational level and distance” designed to convince women entering an abortion clinic to change their minds, several of the sidewalk counselors filed a First Amendment free speech lawsuit challenging the ordinance.
The first court to hear the case, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, decided in favor of the city and upheld the ordinance’s constitutionality.
Most recently, however, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a surprise ruling, evaluated the definitions of the words “congregate,” “patrol,” “picket,” and “demonstrate” used in the ordinance, and then concluded, “Plaintiffs’ sidewalk counseling does not meet any of these definitions … Simply calling peaceful one-on-one conversations “demonstrating” or “picketing” does not make it so when the plain meaning of those terms does not encompass that speech.”
Alliance Defending Freedom represents the sidewalk counselors. Elissa Graves serves as ADF’s Legal Counsel. In a statement, she said “As the 3rd Circuit has now held, the government can’t censor peaceful, pro-life conversation on public sidewalks. Citizens have the freedom to share a message of hope and compassion with any mother seeking to make an informed choice about her pregnancy.”
Although the sidewalk counselors clearly benefit from the 3rd Circuit’s ruling, the city is spinning the decision in its favor. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quotes a spokesman for Mayer Bill Peduto as saying, “The city is happy the court has once again upheld this sensible law protecting patients from harassment.”
But today’s peaceful pro-life sidewalk counselors are a far cry from the demonstrations and altercations that marked abortion clinic protests 20 years ago. And, arguably, today’s sidewalk counselors are more effective at reaching abortion-minded women in their time of crisis. The 3rd Circuit’s decision ensures that Pittsburgh’s pro-life sidewalk counselors can continue their crucial ministry to women and to their preborn babies. Life was the clear winner in this legal battle.