Vermont City Suspends Buffer Zones

Jul 3, 2014

Credit npr.org

In the wake of last week’s Supreme Court decision striking down Massachusetts’ reproductive facilities buffer zone law, the city of Burlington, Vermont has suspended its buffer zone.

The city of Burlington buffer zone ordinance approved in 2012 has two sections. The first prohibits people from knowingly obstructing someone’s entry or exit from a reproductive health facility. The second creates a 35-foot area surrounding the premises where people cannot congregate or demonstrate.

Following a review of the U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down Massachusetts’ buffer zones, Burlington city Attorney Eileen Blackwood determined it also impacted section two of the city law.  Enforcement of the buffer zone has been suspended, and Blackwood plans to ask the City Council to revise the ordinance.  “Our plan is to ask the City Council to amend the ordinance by removing that section of the law. The City Council also probably will then take a look at are there other things that can be included in the ordinance that would be constitutional following the Court’s ruling. So for example the Court suggested to Massachusetts that it could have tried a number of other prohibitions on conduct.”

Planned Parenthood of Northern New England Vice President of Education and Vermont Community Affairs Jill Krowinski says Burlington’s ordinance was a good balance between free speech and access to health care that had been upheld by a circuit court.  “Protesters have already shown up in the zone harassing patients this week. What that means moving forward, we remain committed to ensure that women are able to get into the health center without any sort of hinderance or harassment.”

Attorney Barry Kade represents one of the protesters ticketed last summer for parking within the buffer zone.  He says those protesting have no intention to interfere with access, but have had issues with the buffer zone restrictions.  “It’s clear that that portion of the ordinance that affects demonstrating, etc. is unconstitutional. I went down yesterday with a sign saying ‘Abortion and speech - Both safe and legal in Burlington again’ to see if I would get ticketed. And there was no problem at all. (How close were you able to get to the facility?) Nobody interfered with me at all. I was standing in front of the door at the edge of the sidewalk.”

Vermont Law School Professor of Law Cheryl Hanna says the city was wise to suspend the buffer zone given that the high court determined the type of restriction Burlington implemented is unconstitutional.  “The Supreme Court made clear that buffer zones in and of themselves aren’t unconstitutional. The question is what kind of activity is taking place within those buffer zones. So I would expect the city council would revise the statute and still make illegal harassment and other kinds of behaviors that the Court said they could control.”

Blackwood, the city attorney, will attend the July 14th City Council meeting to discuss amending the ordinance. No enforcement actions will be taken prior to that meeting as long as access to reproductive health care facilities are not hindered.