Free speech! A cherished right for Americans throughout this great land. That is, unless you stand in front of an abortion clinic in the Windy City. On July 3, 2010, Joseph Holland was arrested outside an abortion clinic in Chicago for allegedly violating a “bubble zone” restriction contained in that city’s revised Disorderly Conduct Ordinance. Passed in October 2009, the ordinance states that “a person commits disorderly conduct when (s)he knowingly either:
(1) approaches another person within eight feet of such person, 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 in the public way within a radius of 50 feet from any entrance door to a hospital, medical clinic or health care facility, or
(2) by force or threat of force or by physical obstruction, intentionally injures, intimidates or interferes with or attempts to injure, intimidate or interfere with any person entering or leaving any hospital, medical clinic or health care facility.
While the ordinance’s inclusive language encompasses all types of “medical” facilities, there is really only one facility that this bill aims to protect: ABORTION CLINICS! But, don’t take my word for it. Planned Parenthood of Illinois, who advocated for passage of the revised ordinance, praised its enactment into law.
The facts surrounding the arrest of 25-year-old Holland, a Northwestern University Graduate Student, are being disputed by all parties involved. Mr. Holland maintains that he did not approach anyone, in violation of the “Bubble Zone” Ordinance, nor did he interfere with anyone entering or exiting the facility, but was simply praying the rosary outside of the abortion clinic.
As you might imagine, Planned Parenthood representatives and the Chicago police have a different spin. In addition to praying “loudly,” the police report apparently states that Holland “ultimately got arrested for blocking the entrance.” Bring in the lawyers, the judge, and the jury to get to the bottom of this one.
One issue in this case, however, is not in dispute. The United States Supreme Court, in Hill vs. Colorado, a decade-old case involving a Colorado statute with identical language to that of the Chicago ordinance, upheld the constitutionality of limited “bubble zones” around health care facilities, including abortion clinics. Quoting from an earlier case, Justice Stevens, writing for the 6-3 majority, observed that
[t]he First Amendment does not demand that patients at a medical facility undertake Herculean efforts to escape the cacophony of political protests. (Madsen, 512 U. S., at 772-773)
The facts of this case may prove that Mr. Holland was acting lawfully outside the abortion clinic that day. However, I do not believe that the Chicago “Bubble Zone” Ordinance will be struck down as unconstitutional. That does not offer much solace for those of us who believe that abortion is a moral evil. And, even if the ordinance is upheld by the courts, that should not prevent people who are pro-life in Chicago (and elsewhere) from doing all they can to protect the most innocent among us.
Most pro-lifers would vehemently oppose “Bubble Zone” ordinances that place ANY limitations on protests and free speech outside of abortion clinics. However, before we cast aspersions on these time, place, and manner restrictions, we need to ask if there are any instances where we might approve of similar “Bubble Zones” being imposed by the government. Would we approve of a protest-free zone outside of military funerals to prevent the crazies from Westboro harassing the families of our slain soldiers? Can we envision a time where we would like for towns and cities to enact “bubble zones” around Bible-believing churches so as to protect parishioners on their way to worship from being annoyed by radical homosexual activists?
Free speech is a two-way street. We have the right, with few limits, to speak freely, regardless of whether what we say is “politically correct.” However, we also have the right to tell someone to “buzz off” and to stop bothering us. Justice Stevens emphasized this point in Hill v. Colorado:
The unwilling listener’s interest in avoiding unwanted communication has been repeatedly identified in our cases. It is an aspect of the broader “right to be let alone” that one of our wisest Justices characterized as “the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.” Olmstead v. United States, 277 U. S. 438, 478 (1928) (Brandeis, J., dissenting).
Our initial reaction to Joseph Holland’s arrest outside of the Chicago abortion clinic is to get rid of these stupid restrictions on “legitimate” protests. We might not want to be so hasty. After all, different protestors could be at your church on Sunday, harassing folks as they walk into the sanctuary. Then those “Bubble Zones” wouldn’t seem so bad after all.