Lawsuit challenges free speech restrictions at Mississippi abortion clinic

Published 4:43 pm Monday, October 14, 2019

Abortion opponents in Mississippi have filed a lawsuit challenging a local ordinance that will restrict noise levels and require protesters to remain a certain distance from the entrance of health care facilities.

The lawsuit says the Jackson ordinance unconstitutionally limits free-speech rights as people try to persuade women not to end pregnancies.

Owners of nearby shops and restaurants have complained about commotion outside Mississippi’s only abortion clinic, Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

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The bright pink clinic is in the eclectic Fondren neighborhood. Some protesters use bullhorns and the clinic plays loud music to cover the sound.

Jackson City Council members adopted the ordinance Oct. 1, and it is scheduled to take effect Oct. 31.
Mississippi Justice Institute, which pushes for limiting government regulations, filed the state court lawsuit Friday for members of Sidewalk Advocates for Life.

“Our clients are engaging in quintessential free speech, and they are doing so peacefully and respectfully,” institute director Aaron Rice said in a news release Monday. “They care deeply for the unborn and feel morally led to offer life-affirming alternatives to people entering an abortion facility.”

Clinic workers have said protesters harass women.

Like many places in the Deep South, Mississippi is a conservative state with a Republican-led Legislature that has been enacting laws to restrict access to abortion. Southern cities where abortion clinics are located tend to be more socially and politically liberal. That’s the case in Jackson, where most City Council members are Democrats. During the Jackson debate, council members said limiting noise and creating a buffer zone is an attempt to help patients and local businesses rather than to help the clinic.

The Jackson ordinance prohibits people from protesting within 15 feet (5 meters) of any entrance to a health care facility. It also says that within 100 feet (30 meters) of the entrance of a health care facility, each person has a “personal bubble zone” of 8 feet (2 meters), and that unless the person gives permission, nobody else may get inside the bubble to hand over a leaflet or to engage in “oral protest, education or counseling.” Further, the ordinance prohibits amplified sound within 100 feet (30 meters) of the property line of a health care facility.

Violation carries a $1,000 fine, 90 days in jail or both.

A federal appeals court in February upheld the constitutionality of a 2009 Chicago ordinance that created an 8-foot (2-meter) bubble zone outside medical facilities. But, in 2014, the Supreme Court struck down a 2007 Massachusetts law that banned people from standing within 35 feet (11 meters) of an abortion clinic.