U.S. District Judge Restricts Enforcement of Sacramento Abortion Clinic Protest Ordinance
U.S. District Judge Frank Damrell on Thursday issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting the enforcement of a city ordinance that creates a no-protest buffer zone around abortion clinics, the Sacramento Bee reports. The city ordinance was modeled on a Sacramento County ordinance that has not been challenged in court (Bazar, Sacramento Bee, 7/30). The Sacramento County Board of Supervisors in December voted to create a 20-foot no-protest buffer zone around reproductive health clinics and doctors' offices where abortions are performed in the county to stop protestors from hindering women's access to the clinics. San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose have approved similar ordinances. Under the city ordinance, if protesters cross the buffer zone, they can be charged with a misdemeanor and can face fines of as much as $500 and imprisonment in county jails for as long as three months (California Healthline, 7/29).
In his ruling, Damrell said that the plaintiffs in the case "demonstrated sufficient likelihood of success" in arguing that the ordinance infringed on the abortion protesters' freedom of expression. Under the ruling, residents can continue to protest and hand out leaflets at abortion clinics, provided that they do not proceed within a 3-foot radius surrounding anyone entering a clinic. The ordinance took effect June 25 (Sacramento Bee, 7/30).
Damrell's ruling was made at a hearing of two anti-abortion activists -- Harry Reeves and Peter Stillson -- who say police threatened them with arrest for distributing pamphlets and displaying protest signs earlier this month. Damrell scheduled a hearing for Sept. 10 on the motion for a preliminary injunction, and the ordinance's constitutionality will be decided then in that context (California Healthline, 7/29).
Sacramento City Council members said they would draft a new version of the ordinance, possibly modeled on the San Jose ordinance, which created an 8-foot buffer zone around people entering a reproductive health clinic. The San Jose guidelines are similar to a Colorado law Damrell cited during the hearing as a better alternative to Sacramento's current regulation. Bob Ryan, an attorney for the county, said he does not plan to make any immediate recommendation in court to change the rules' language. City Council member Dave Jones said the council could consider Damrell's ruling in closed session this week, with revisions to follow shortly thereafter.
"We are going to fix this. The intent of the city council is very clear and unanimous," Mayor Heather Fargo said, adding, "We feel that it's important to provide protection for people who are seeking medical advice at these clinics." Britta Guerrero, executive director of Sacramento's Pregnancy Consultation Center, said the ordinance's language was "loose" and "confusing," adding that it was important for the city to have a rule that specifically defines "harassment" and other terms. "The protesters need to be clear on what they can and cannot do, and we need to be clear," Guerrero said.
Dana Cody, attorney for the protesters, said the ruling will not change the protesters' activities. "What will change is the police won't be able to tell them when you offer a leaflet that you can't extend your hand." Cody said her clients would probably support a new ordinance based on the San Jose rules. "We're not trying to do anything but make [the ordinance] reasonable," Cody said (Sacramento Bee, 7/30).