Committee delays action on proposed abortion ‘bubble’ ordinance
Building owner alleges city not enforcing existing ordinances
By Stuart R. Wahlin
The Rockford City Council’s Codes and Regulations Committee discussed a proposed ordinance Jan. 25 that would create a 100-foot buffer zone from the entrance of any medical facility in the city, but the measure is specifically aimed at curbing the activities of anti-abortion protesters at the Northern Illinois Women’s Center, 1400 Broadway.
The ordinance was proposed by Ald. Karen Elyea (D-11), who owns a business one block from the clinic, but the measure was drafted by city attorney Jennifer Cacciapaglia, who is also the Democratic nominee running against incumbent state Sen. Dave Syverson (R-34) in November.
The proposed legislation reads: “No person shall knowingly approach another person or vehicle within eight feet of such person or vehicle, unless such other person consents, for the purpose of passing a leaflet or handbill to, displaying a sign to, or engaging in oral protest, education or counseling with such other person or vehicle in the public way or sidewalk within the radius of one hundred feet from any entrance door to a health care facility.”
Cacciapaglia said Elyea approached her just before Christmas to look into the constitutionality of similar ordinances.
The proposed buffer zone, or “bubble,” is twice the 50-foot zone approved in the City of Chicago last year. Violation of Chicago’s ordinance carries a $500 fine.
The legislation, Cacciapaglia explained, is modeled after a 100-foot buffer zone law in Colorado, which has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Elyea said she believes the law is necessary for the safety of both sides of the heated debate, especially when vehicles and pedestrians come into close contact. She reported there have been 128 calls for service and 64 complaints filed during the last two years in response to incidents at the clinic.
Ald. Frank Beach (R-10), the committee’s chairman, argued the task of establishing whether the 8-foot bubble has been breached would cause a lot of headaches, while Ald. Ann Thompson-Kelly (D-7) said she’s “in full support” of the ordinance.
Ald. Doug Mark (R-3) expressed “consternation” with how both sides present their messages, while noting there are already federal protections in place.
The proposed ordinance was laid over for two weeks in committee while Cacciapaglia gathers additional information about similar laws in other communities.
In a statement to The Rock River Times, the Rockford Diocese responded: “The Rockford Catholic Diocese sees the recent proposal drafted by the City of Rockford’s Legal Department and introduced to the Rockford City Council by Alderman Karen Elyea (D-11), as yet another attempt to silence the pro-life community. The Bubble Zone ordinance clearly seeks to limit the freedom of speech and assembly as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States based on the religious and political views of individuals who differ from those of others in the City of Rockford.
“It is most grievous that our city seeks to eliminate any vestige of a moral compass for itself,” the statement added.
Because Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) is known as a devout Catholic, The Rock River Times asked whether he’d discussed the proposed ordinance with Elyea.
“I talked with her a little bit about it, and we respectfully disagree with each other on the underlying positions. She’s pro-choice. I’m pro-life,” he responded. “I don’t think we need to change our ordinances. I think we have enough. We’ve been practicing and exercising our responsibilities to manage this process, and I think—certainly in a very difficult context—our officers and our legal department staff’s done a good job about managing that.”
The devil and Wayne Webster?
Although they are co-defendants in a federal lawsuit filed by anti-abortion activists, the City of Rockford and Wayne Webster, owner of 1400 Broadway, have little else in common.
In 2008, Kevin Rilott and fellow anti-abortion activists expanded their lawsuit, alleging the city violated their First Amendment rights, and that the city had allegedly failed to protect the protesters.
Rilott, who said the lawsuit would be in the courts for years, alleged Elyea’s proposed ordinance is sinister in its motives.
“I think it’s proposed in response to the number of abortions in Rockford…going down because of the good work of the sidewalk counselors,” he said. “They’re offering help to women in need, letting them know there’s people who will help them financially, just be their friends. And they see the number going down, so they want to get us out of there.
“The real result of this will be children will die,” Rilott added. “Mothers who would have chosen life, because someone was there to help them, won’t have that choice. It will block that choice. You know, if they say they’re for choice, then why don’t they allow these young women to hear that there’s people who will help them?”
In 2008, Rilott delivered a similar message.
“For several years, we have been trying to help women who come to the abortion facility, called the Northern Illinois Women’s Center, know that there are alternatives,” Rilott said during an April 3, 2008, press conference. “Unfortunately, there are those in our community who don’t like what we do, and try to harass and obstruct our efforts. They have the right to express themselves as well, as long as they act within the law, as we are required to do.”
Rilott’s press conference came as a result of an incident during which a clinic neighbor confronted a protester who was pointing a video camera at him.
“When one of our sidewalk counselors was assaulted by someone, and even threatened with bodily harm and racial slurs,” Rilott alleged, “the police, after taking over an hour to respond to our 9-1-1 call, did not take any action, and seemed to say that we had no choice but to accept the assaults and harassment—that what happened was our fault. Blaming the victim for the crime is a sad way to protect citizens.”
Webster, who noted he’s also an ordained minister, indicated his building’s security cameras recorded the incident, arguing Rilott’s account is simply not truthful.
Regardless of whose version is correct, two squad cars are typically stationed outside the clinic now on days abortions are performed. Despite this, however, Webster alleged the protesters are getting a free pass from the administration of Mayor Larry Morrissey (I).
Morrissey disagreed, pointing to the federal litigation as evidence.
“They’re arguing that we’re infringing upon their rights of free speech, or our tactics or actions have had a chilling effect on their exercise of free speech,” the mayor noted. “We’re getting critiqued equally from both sides.”
Morrissey asserted the city its doing its best to balance the competing interests.
“We’ve taken an oath to uphold the Constitution. I take that very seriously. Our job is to make sure that we have open access to the clinics,” he added. “I can’t remember getting any complaints from patients trying to access the clinic who’ve argued that we’ve not done our job in terms of supporting their access, which is the ultimate issue for us.”
Webster, however, stands by his assertion.
“In the City of Rockford, if you’re an anti-abortion protester, you can get away with breaking any law there is,” Webster alleged. “The Constitution of the United States has been suspended here at Broadway and 10th Street. They have a rule in the Rockford Police Department, the Rockford City Legal Department, the mayor’s office, that I am not allowed to file charges against anybody for any reason, if it’s a city ordinance. And the reason they did this is because they’re trying to close the clinic.”
Legal Director Patrick Hayes, however, also denied Webster’s allegation that the city has an unofficial policy of turning a blind eye to protesters.
“That’s not true,” Hayes told The Rock River Times. “Let me tell you that when people have complaints, we have a protocol that we follow. Part of the protocol is, file a police report, and it will be thoroughly reviewed. And we do have ordinances that protect certain individuals, and some are designed to protect a class of individuals. So, if we have a complaint from that class of individuals, we will pursue them. I can tell you that outside of the main access out there, we rarely have complaints. Mr. Webster has issues with Mr. Rilott. Mr. Rilott has issues with Mr. Webster, vice versa, and there’s a mutuality there that’s understandable, because they hold different positions in a very important debate.
“Sometimes that gets volatile. People get frustrated,” Hayes added. “And what they attempt to do is get the city to take their side and/or to inhibit, or prohibit, or make life more difficult for who they perceive to be their adversary in the debate. The city is very temperate on bringing actions down there, and wants to make certain that the actions that we bring really are related to protecting the people that the aldermen intended to protect when they passed the ordinance.”
Hayes indicated there are a number of laws in place to protect both sides of the debate.
“Right now, there’s the disorderly conduct statutes, and assault and battery, and all the criminal statutes that govern conduct normally, and those still apply in this arena,” he said. “And we, for many years, have had a set of protocols for the conduct of strikes and labor organizations and protesters that we use.”
During committee discussion regarding the proposed bubble ordinance, however, Elyea argued, “There are…a lot of things that the police could be enforcing there that would make that driveway area safer, but they’re really not.”
Hayes pointed to the Free Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, but Cacciapaglia and Elyea noted the federal law is not locally enforceable by police. They explained the bubble ordinance is necessary to give police the authority to enforce the 8-foot buffer zone.
Asked to predict whether the proposed “bubble” ordinance would be met with support by aldermen, Webster responded: “I don’t know what’s gonna happen, but I do know this: Even if it becomes law, as long as Morrissey and [Hayes] are in charge, they will make goddamn sure that nothing happens to any of their friends out here protesting.”
Webster said he’s approached officers stationed at the clinic several times to demand that allegedly illegal activities be stopped. Instead of taking action, Webster noted, the officers contact their sergeant instead.
“The sergeant comes out and looks at it, and says, ‘Well, I just got a call from City Legal, and they say we’re not gonna do anything,’” Webster alleged. “Sgt. Andre Brass told me: ‘They’re only gonna be here for three hours, twice a week, breaking the law. …So, we’re not gonna do anything.’”
The Rock River Times requested a comment from Police Chief Chet Epperson regarding the alleged policy, but Hayes fielded the inquiry instead.
“We have a written protocol about this that, in the non-emergency ordinance violations that Mr. Webster often complains about, we review all those at the Legal Department before any charging decisions are made,” Hayes explained, noting that violations of criminal statutes are not subject to the same review. “On the ordinance violations, ordinances are enforceable only if the actual purposes of the ordinance are being violated.”
Essentially, Hayes said, the Legal Department determines whether an allegation of an ordinance violation is being applied by the parties the law is intended to protect.
“An area that comes up often down there is a certain aspect of noise violations and things like that affect neighbors, and are there to protect residential interests, rather than the protesters’ interests, or Mr. Webster’s interests as a businessman,” Hayes noted. “If the conduct observed was, you know, egregious and criminal, our officers are going to take immediate action.”
Webster further alleged he was visited by Kerry Partridge, a city attorney, regarding his complaints about protesters.
“‘Just so you know,’ [Partridge] said, ‘I was sent out here to tell you this: We’re not gonna enforce city ordinances against the protesters. You’re not gonna be allowed to make any complaints,’” Webster alleged.
“And I said, ‘Isn’t that kind of a violation of my civil rights?’
“And he said, ‘Well, they have friends downtown, so we’re not gonna do anything about it.’
“I had a guy trespassing onto my property,” Webster recounted. “I called the police. The police came out. I said: ‘This guy’s standing on top of my fence with a cone, making more noise than anybody in the world. He’s trespassing on my property, and I want him arrested for trespassing.’
“[The officer] said, ‘Well, to begin with, we’re not gonna arrest anybody if you’re the complainant,’” Webster alleged.
Video of the protester’s activity was posted to the Internet via the YouTube account of Ald. Elyea’s store at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WFoVWbiFmZU.
Because police allegedly won’t act on his accusations, Webster said, neighbors have taken it upon themselves to complain, but to no avail.
One neighbor filed a complaint, which led to the arrest of a protester for alleged trespassing and violation of the city’s nuisance noise ordinance. The charges were dismissed, however, for “want of prosecution” because no city attorney showed up in court to prosecute the case.
Since Mayor Morrissey has been in office, Webster said, he can’t think of a single person who has been prosecuted by the city for alleged violations at the clinic, but Hayes said the city is doing its best to protect the rights of those on both sides of the abortion issue.
“It doesn’t surprise me that they’re voicing their frustration,” he acknowledged. “There’s folks from the right-to-life side that are suing us in federal court, because they say we’re too hard on them. And Mr. Webster complains that we’re too hard on him, or not hard enough on the right-to-life faction. And so, both sides are complaining, but I think we’re about as close to where we ought to be as we can get.”
From the Jan. 27-Feb. 2, 2010 issue