Buffer zone bill in St. Louis City fails

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The St. Louis Board of Aldermen rejected a bill that would create a buffer zone around health care facilities, including Planned Parenthood.

Board Bill 34 failed by a vote of 9-15 on April 16, the last day of the aldermanic session.

The full board voted 15-13 to perfect the bill, but for the final vote, several aldermen who previously supported it changed their votes from "yes" to "no" — including Brandon Bosley (Ward 3), Terry Kennedy (Ward 18), Sam Moore (Ward 4) and Lisa Middlebrook (Ward 2).

Several previous "yes" votes also were not there to vote, including Jack Coatar (Ward 7), Tammika Hubbard (Ward 5) and Joseph Roddy (Ward 17).

The bill would have created a fixed, eight-foot buffer zone around a health care facility's driveway entrance, or within a public right-of-way or sidewalk. The bill also said that no one may "knowingly enter, remain on, or create an obstruction" in those areas.

"We are grateful to the Board of Aldermen for defeating Board Bill 34CS, and choosing not to restrict the constitutionally protected rights of assembly and free speech on public property," said Karen Nolkemper, executive director of the archdiocesan Respect Life Apostolate. "Our work of prayer and presence will continue because we know that women facing difficult or unplanned pregnancies need real options and support, not abortion."

In debate on the bill April 16, sponsor Christine Ingrassia (6th Ward) reiterated that it was crafted to balance First Amendment rights and a woman's right to access health care and public safety.

"We felt that the eight foot buffer was a smart distance so that people would still be allowed to get across their message if they were choosing to demonstrate, but would allow for the driveway to be accessible," she said.

"If the bill doesn't pass, it does not mean that the conversation is not important to have here at the board," she said. "Having a conversation and having a bill not pass out of the board is not a failure in my mind."

Similar buffer zone ordinances exist in Chicago and Pittsburgh. In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Colorado law with a 100-foot buffer zone, and within it, an eight-foot floating buffer zone, meaning it applies to the zone around an individual. The Supreme Court in 2014 rejected a Massachusetts law that had a 35-foot fixed buffer zone.

Several aldermen questioned whether protesters should have their First Amendment Rights restricted. Alderwoman Sharon Tyus (1st Ward) noted that she's in favor of the right to abortion, but the bill chips away at a fundamental right of free speech.

"For me it's about the right to protest," she said. "I think free speech is very, very important. Everybody's — mine, and those who do not agree with me."

A Planned Parenthood statement noted that it is "committed to safe access for patients, staff, volunteers and protesters at St. Louis health care facilities, including ours. Board Bill 34 accomplished that, balancing safety concerns with First Amendment rights. Although the bill did not pass, we will continue to back policies to improve access while supporting the rights of free speech in our community." 

"At least for a little while, we continue our pro-life efforts unobstructed," said Brian Westbrook, executive director of Coalition for Life St. Louis. "We want to thank the aldermen and alderwomen who stood up against this attack on our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, especially to those who disagree with us on the abortion issue.

"Make no mistake: while this is a huge victory, Planned Parenthood and their friends will continue to pursue even more restrictive efforts to limit our speech," Westbrook said. "While BB34 was defeated today, we fully expect this bill or a similar one to be filed again next session. We here at the Coalition for Life will fight to the end."

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