News Law and Policy

Buffer Zone Ordinance Passes in Madison, Wisconsin

Teddy Wilson

Passed by the city council Tuesday, the new ordinance will require a 160-foot buffer zone around any health-care clinic in the city, with a fine of up to $750 for violators.

Individuals walking into any health-care clinic in Madison, Wisconsin, including those that provide abortion services, will now be separated from anti-choice protesters by a buffer zone.

Passed by the city council Tuesday, the new ordinance will require a 160-foot buffer zone around any health-care clinic in the city, with a fine of up to $750 for violators. In addition, individuals entering clinics will be protected by a floating eight-foot buffer zone, meaning that protesters must stay that far away from people entering clinics, even outside the 160-foot zone.

The ordinance was passed unanimously, and no amendments were made after introduction at either the committee or council level.

Ald. Lisa Subeck (District 1) introduced the ordinance to ensure that every individual trying to obtain medical care could do so with a sense of privacy. Subeck told The Capital Times that the ordinance “applies to any healthcare facility in the city, but clearly the health care facilities where we have a problem are women’s reproductive health care clinics.” 

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Subeck told Rewire that the response to the ordinance has been overwhelmingly positive. “We received much positive feedback leading up to the vote,” said Subeck. “From the time the ordinance was introduced to the time of passage, the overwhelming majority of responses has been supportive and positive.”

While the ordinance applies to all health-care clinics in the city, it was proposed in response to constant protests of Planned Parenthood Madison East, the sole provider of abortion services in the city, and one of only four clinics in the state. 

Anti-choice activists have already filed a lawsuit against the ordinance, as attorneys from the Alliance Defending Freedom filed to seek an emergency injunction Wednesday. The lawsuit claims that the ordinance violates the First Amendment rights of so-called sidewalk counselors. Gwen Finnegan, director of Madison Vigil for Life and the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, characterized the ordinance as an “attempt to impose a gag rule on free speech.”

Michael May, an attorney for the City of Madison, told Rewire that the ordinance is considered by the city to be constitutional, in part because it is modeled on a Colorado law upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Hill v. Colorado. May said that the city will respond fully to the specifics of the claims in the lawsuit when they defend the ordinance in court, adding that the costs associated with defending the lawsuit by city attorneys are included in the city budget.

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