San Francisco Ordinance Law Stifles Pro-Life Free Speech

State   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Sep 25, 2003   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

San Francisco Ordinance Law Stifles Pro-Life Free Speech

by Maria Gallagher Staff Writer
September 25, 2003

San Francisco, CA ( — The city of San Francisco is trying to silence the pro-life message, according to groups which oppose abortion.

Under a law set to take effect this Saturday, the Board of Supervisors has attempted to restrict the free speech rights of sidewalk counselors who counsel women about the dangers of abortion. The ordinance forbids "a person (from) knowingly approach(ing) 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."

However, in a bizarre twist, the word "person" does not apply to "an individual seeking access to, passage from, or services within a health care facility." As a result, according to the Legal Defense Foundation, a pro-life legal group, sidewalk counselors could make uninvited approaches to women who are entering or exiting an abortion center, but not to anyone else.

"It’s hilarious," said Katie Short, legal director of Life Legal Defense Foundation. "If you walk up and hand a leaflet to someone who is just walking down the street past an abortion clinic, you risk three months in jail and a hefty fine. But if you approach a woman who is actually going into the clinic, the ordinance doesn’t apply."

Short believes the mix-up in language is due to an overzealous attempt by the Board of Supervisors to draft a law which would punish pro-lifers. The legislation was patterned after a Colorado law that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. Rather than copy that law, Short said, "the City also wanted to stigmatize pro-lifers in the process. So they took the convoluted route of prohibiting ‘harassment’ and then defining harassment in a way no sane person would do. They wanted to claim to be prohibiting ‘harassment,’ rather than restricting pro-life speech, which was their true intent." But in doing so, "they tripped themselves up," Short added.

As a result, women going to abortion centers in San Francisco are not persons, under the law. In an attempt to chill the speech of pro-lifers, the supervisors, their lawyers, and local abortion advocates created a law that is "nonsensical," according to Short.

Short believes the law was meant to target sidewalk counselors at two major abortion centers in San Francisco, one of which is run by Planned Parenthood, the nation’s biggest abortion operation. Given the law’s unusual wording, however, it is unclear at this point what impact the ordinance will have on the actions of San Francisco’s
sidewalk counselors.