Enough laws in place to eliminate need for abortion ‘bubble’ zone?

February 10, 2010

The Northern Illinois Women’s Clinic, 1400 Broadway, is the sight of anti-abortion protests several days per week. Photo by Stuart Wahlin.

Aldermen delay vote, call both sides to table

By Stuart R. Wahlin

Staff Writer

Members of the Rockford City Council’s Codes and Regulations Committee voted to lay over for two months a proposed ordinance that would make it illegal for antiabortion activists to breach an 8-foot “bubble” around patients or employees within 100 feet of a clinic entrance. (See “Committee delays action on proposed abortion ëbubble’ ordinance” in the Jan. 27-Feb. 2, 2010, issue).

The ordinance, proposed by Ald. Karen Elyea (D-11), first came before the committee Jan. 25, but was laid over so that more information could be gathered regarding similar legislation in other communities. Jennifer Cacciapaglia, a city attorney and Democratic candidate running to unseat incumbent state Sen. Dave Syverson (R-34), drafted the resolution at Elyea’s request. During the Jan. 25 meeting, Cacciapaglia said she’d explore the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) stance on bubble legislation. Reporting the results of her investigation Feb. 8, Cacciapaglia indicated the ACLU appears inconsistent with regard to the issue.

“Some divisions of the ACLU nationally oppose any sort of buffer zone that would prohibit any sort of communication,” she said. “Other entities of the ACLU closer to the east side of the country applaud an ordinance drafted exactly how I drafted this ordinance.” Ald. Frank Beach (R-10), the committee’s chairman, said he still had too many unanswered questions to take any action at this point. Elyea has cited concerns about the safety of those on both sides of the abortion debate, and that putting a little distance between the two might be best for all involved. “We’ll probably see instances with the road being blocked,” Elyea said of the upcoming Lent season, during which antiabortion activists conduct their “40 Days for Life” demonstrations at the clinic. “They block the driveway. Only one car can get in. Then, there ends up being cars blocking 10th Street.” Referencing statistics provided by the Rockford Police Department, Beach noted there had been 137 calls for service to the Northern Illinois Women’s Clinic, 1400 Broadway, in the past year. Of those calls, approximately 60 police reports had been filed, and 11 arrests had been made. Only two of the arrests were attributed to activities directly associated with the clinic, however. “What does trigger off an arrest? Why aren’t more arrests being made on both sides of the issue?” Beach wondered. “If they’re violating the law, if they’re blocking the driveway, if they’re blocking the streets- maybe we should start the arrests.” Deputy Chief Mike Booker explained the Police Department has a duty to remain impartial regarding the sensitive issue, and that the constitutional rights and guarantees of both sides must be upheld.

“Most recently, the issues have been noise,” Booker reported. “One ordinance very specifically speaks to music being played over the loudspeaker, and so the building owner will play talk-radio, versus musicó just cutting the line that finely. “In the 20 or 25 years that I’ve been around, both parties have gotten very, very proficient at walking right up to the line, but not crossing it,” he added. “It requires us to document the incidents, and then seek input from our Legal Department in just about each and every incident.” After the Jan. 25 committee meeting, Legal Director Patrick Hayes indicated the city tends to shy away from being used by one side to enforce an ordinance against the problems for police in enforceability.” Agreeing the 8-foot barrier could be troublesome, Booker wondered: “How do we enforce that? I mean, do we say 8 feet is different than 7 feet, 10 inches? ÖHow do you know when you’re within that 8-foot boundary?” Ald. Bill Robertson (I-14) said he felt the ordinance is worth consideration, but that it would be foolish to rush to a decision. Instead, he suggested both sides of the issue at the clinic be brought to the table to see if the problems can be solved without adoption of a new ordinance.

“I keep hearing from some of my fellow aldermen and the mayorÖthat there’s enough ordinances on the books right now to take care of the problems,” Robertson said. “Yet, the problems continue. -They need to be ironed out.

“We ought to tell both sides in this particular clinic operationóthat being the folks outside the building and the folks inside the building- that we’re going to start enforcing what rules we have,” he added. “When behavior doesn’t match those expectations, we ought to arrest somebody.” Although initially supporting an immediate vote on the matter, indicating she strongly favors the ordinance, Ald. Ann Thompson-Kelly (D-7) agreed to delay action for two months after suggestions were made by others to table the ordinance indefinitely.

Like Thompson- Kelly and Robertson, Elyea feared tabling the issue would result in nothing being done to solve the problem. “I think, if you table this indefinitely, we won’t end up having a meeting,” Elyea asserted. “The parties all need to come to the other to make arrests. He said, however, that all complaints are reviewed, and that those received from area residents, rather than from protesters or the clinic, are given particular attention.

After the ordinance was first discussed in committee, Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) told The Rock River Times: “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 thinkócertainly in a very difficult contextóour officers and our Legal Department staff’s done a good job about managing that.” Wayne Webster, owner of the building that houses the abortion clinic, said he has proof the bubble ordinance is needed.

“We did everything we could do before we decided that we needed to enact this bubble law,” he asserted, attributing his inspiration for the ordinance to Legal Director Hayes. Webster provided a letter to this publication issued Aug. 5, 2009, by the City of Rockford Department of Law. The letter was a response to Webster’s complaint of a protester who, according to the letter, was allegedly “slowly and repeatedly walking back and forth across the clinic entrance and/or obstructing the clinic entrance to vehicular traffic.” The Legal Department’s response stated: “After reviewing the

City Code of Ordinances,

it has been determined that an appropriate ordinance violation does not exist to address [the protester's] conduct. This Department believes more appropriate charges could be contemplated under federal or state law by the Illinois Attorney General’s Office and/or the United States Attorney’s Office. “If you read this letter,” Webster said, “and if you see the incidents that happen here where the employees and the people who work here on a regular basisóthey’re trapped when they get here, because the protesters block the driveway. And then they surround their car, and it puts them in a position of, basically, fearing for their lives.” However, most committee members agreed that instead of adopting a new ordinance, existing laws may be adequate to address the conflicts between protesters, employees, patients and neighbors, and that it may be time to simply step up enforcement on both sides of the abortion debate at the clinic.

Ald. Nancy Johnson (D-8) explained, “We’ve been told by the Police Department, by the mayor’s office, by the Legal Department that there are ordinances- already on the books that, possibly, we can use to address some of Ald. Elyea’s concerns.” Although the ordinance would specifically apply to medical facilities, Johnson also expressed concern that the law may adversely affect picketing union members who may wish to distribute literature to passersby. Ald. Doug Mark (R-3) agreed existing laws could be enforced better, but added, “I’m also concerned that an 8-foot zone inside the hundred-foot zone creates sometable- and behaviors on both sides need to be discussed.”Robertson’s motion for a two-month layover prevailed, with the only “no” cast by Beach, who preferred a six-month, or indefinite, tabling of the measure. Asked to comment after the committee meeting, anti-abortion activist Kevin Rilott responded: “The problem is, based on what they’re talking about at the table, they don’t understand the real situation. They’re looking at these police reports from the calls coming into the Police Department and think it has something to do with the actual sidewalk counselors who the bubble zone would affect.” Rilott has argued such an ordinance would be an attack on the free speech of counselors who gather outside the clinic to offer alternatives to abortion for pregnant women. “None of the calls to the Police Department have been about the sidewalk counselors.

They’ve been about noise, and those are not the 8-foot bubble zone,” he noted, referring to other anti-abortion demonstrators often gathering outside the clinic. “Ald. Elyea said that if this bubble zone is in place, it would quiet the neighborhood down.” Rilott, however, suggested: “It would double the noise. When you push people further back and take away their rights to free speech, they’re gonna shout even louder. So, if they take away our rights to free speech, all hell is gonna break loose.”

From the Feb. 10-16, 2010 issue

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