News Law and Policy

Federal Court Refuses to Block Buffer Zone Ordinance in Madison, Wisconsin

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Friday's ruling leaves in place a new ordinance that creates buffer zones at entrances to health-care facilities in the city while a legal challenge to its constitutionality moves forward.

On Friday, a federal judge rejected a request by anti-choice groups to temporarily block a new ordinance creating buffer zones at the entrances of health-care facilities in Madison, Wisconsin, leaving the ordinance in place while a legal challenge to its constitutionality moves forward.

The buffer zone ordinance, passed last week, was prompted in part by repeated protests at a Planned Parenthood health-care center in Madison. That facility is the only abortion provider in the city and one of only four in the state. The ordinance is similar to others passed recently in places like Portland, Maine, in response to targeted clinic protests. It creates a protective zone within 160 feet of any heath-care facility to allow patients and staff to enter and exit without being obstructed. In addition, under the ordinance, people on public sidewalks cannot approach another person within eight feet without their consent for the purpose of oral protest, education, “counseling,” displaying signs, or passing leaflets—even outside the 160-foot buffer zone. Violations of the ordinances are punishable by fines ranging from $300 to $750.

Jenni Dye, executive director for NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin, explained the purpose of the ordinance to Rewire; it was one of several policy proposals to come out of an investigation of crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs) the NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin Foundation completed last year. According to Dye, the investigation found that CPCs were increasingly located adjacent to abortion providers, and their presence, along with so-called sidewalk counselors who target patients for harassment outside clinics, demonstrated a need to proactively protect access to reproductive health care.

“No one attempting to access any type of health care should be greeted with physical confrontation, protesters in their face, or forcing leaflets into their hands,” said Dye. “Madison’s newly passed buffer zone will protect patient privacy and dignity while accessing health care.”

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Madison Vigil for Life and several other anti-choice activists and organizations filed the lawsuit challenging the buffer zone less than a day after the Madison City Council passed the ordinance. According to the complaint, the city council had no justification in passing the ordinance, which the plaintiffs allege unconstitutionally violates their First Amendment free speech rights.

In denying the request for a temporary restraining order, U.S. District Judge William Conley ruled the plaintiffs had not yet shown they could succeed on the merits of their claims that the ordinance unconstitutionally restricted their speech rights.

Wisconsin Vigil for Life and the other plaintiffs in the lawsuit are also asking the court for a preliminary injunction against the ordinance, which, if successful, would set the stage for blocking the ordinance permanently. Judge Conley gave attorneys for the City of Madison 30 days to respond to that request, which means the buffer zone will stay in place for now, with the court hearing additional arguments challenging the ordinance later this spring.

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