A U.S. Supreme Court justice on Monday encouraged the high court to once again take up the issue of speech restrictions outside abortion clinics, saying the justices must “resolve the glaring tension” among its precedents.
At issue is a Pittsburgh ordinance that says individuals cannot “knowingly congregate, patrol, picket or demonstrate” within 15 feet of the entrance of a hospital or health care facility. Although the ordinance applies to all facilities, critics contend the city has enforced the ordinance only at two abortion clinics.
Pro-life groups and activists challenged the law, and the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals upheld most of the law in 2019.
The U.S. Supreme Court declined on Monday to take the case, but Justice Clarence Thomas, in a one-page statement, encouraged the justices to consider the issue in the future.
“The city of Pittsburgh, like many jurisdictions, has created ‘buffer zones’ around abortion clinics. These zones often impose serious limits on free speech. Many even prohibit certain one-on-one conversations,” Thomas wrote. “... I agree with the Court’s decision not to take up this case because it involves unclear, preliminary questions about the proper interpretation of state law. But the Court should take up this issue in an appropriate case to resolve the glaring tension in our precedents.”
Thomas quoted two abortion clinic cases that resulted in different conclusions: 2000’s Hill v. Colorado, in which the court upheld a Colorado statute restricting speech within 100 feet of an abortion clinic entrance; and 2014’s McCullen v. Coakley, in which the court struck down a Massachusetts law that placed restrictions on speech within a 35-foot buffer zone around clinic entrances.
Although the Third Circuit upheld the Pittsburgh ordinance, it also gave pro-lifers a small win, ruling the ordinance does not apply to “sidewalk counseling.”
Alliance Defending Freedom represented five sidewalk counselors challenging the law.
“The problem with the 3rd Circuit reinterpreting Pittsburgh’s law in order to save it, rather than rule against it for the obvious constitutional problems the court saw, is that Pittsburgh remains free to engage in censorship of constitutionally protected speech. We will be closely monitoring what the city does,” said ADF senior counsel Kevin Theriot, who argued the case before the Third Circuit. “As Justice Thomas pointed out, the court should revisit the question of ‘buffer zones’ because of the serious limits they impose on free speech.”
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Alex Wong/Staff
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.