Pittsburgh Repeals Ordinance Banning Pro-Life Leaflets

State   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Aug 18, 2011   |   3:26PM   |   Pittsburgh, PA

The mayor of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania has signed off on a City Council-approved measure repealing an ordinance that faced an injunction from a judge because it restricted the right of pro-life people and others to distribute literature within the city.

The ACLJ filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of two pro-life advocates challenging the constitutionality of the Pittsburgh ordinance and, in October 2010, U.S. District Court Judge David Cercone granted a temporarily injunction to stop the enforcement of the law that bans putting fliers on parked cars in the city. The law bans any written literature “so as to cause litter or unreasonably interfere with pedestrians or traffic” without permission of the owner of the car.

Two pro-life advocates, Kathleen Ramsey and Albert Brunn, challenged the constitutionality of the law so they could place voter guides on vehicles and Edward White of the ACLJ, a pro-life law firm, argued the law was vague and stifled free speech. He said litter isn’t caused by people passing out pro-life information but by the drivers who toss the information to the streets instead of throwing it away.

In the decision, the judge noted that “Supreme Court decisions [s]uggest that preventing littering is simply not a sufficiently significant interest to preclude leafleting.”

Now, the law is off the books and White says that’s good news for pro-life free speech.

“From the very beginning, it was clear that this ordinance violated the First Amendment rights of our clients,” White told LifeNews. “It did take a federal lawsuit and an injunction from a federal court prohibiting the ordinance from being enforced to get this issue resolved. We’re extremely pleased that this ordinance has been repealed and that Pittsburghers can once again exercise their free speech rights through the distribution of leaflets without the fear of being fined.”

In recent months, the ACLJ has focused on efforts to permanently resolve this case, White said. The City agreed to pay $35,000 in attorneys’ fees to settle the suit and agreed to repeal the ordinance. City Council has approved legislation repealing it and the Mayor has now signed off on the repeal.

Pittsburgh attorney Noah P. Fardo of the law firm Flaherty Fardo LLC assisted the ACLJ on the case. In reacting to the City’s decision to repeal the ordinance, Fardo stated: “Chalk up one for the Constitution.”

During the litigation of the case, Assistant city solicitor Michael Kennedy told the court the law was written to stop excessive litter problems caused by the distribution of literature, sales brochures and other items placed on vehicles and that it wasn’t intended to target political free speech.

But the legal papers ACLJ filed said, “The Supreme Court stated many years ago, “[i]t has long been recognized that the First Amendment needs breathing space and that statutes attempting to restrict or burden the exercise of First Amendment rights must be narrowly drawn and represent a considered legislative judgment that a particular mode of expression has to give way to other compelling needs of society.”

The ruling in this case follows another where the city lost a case regarding the buffer zone law that has been the subject of lawsuits by pro-life advocates. The debate revolves around a 2005 bubble zone law that restricted access to public areas surrounding abortion businesses.

U.S. District Judge Nora Barry Fischer, this summer, granted a request from pro-life advocate Mary Kathryn Brown and ordered the city to pay $209,276 in attorney fees and costs, mostly to attorneys from The Alliance Defense Fund, a pro-life legal group that represented Brown.

Fisher reduced the amount requested from Brown’s attorneys by $48,272, the Tribune Review reported. Meanwhile, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is considering a similar fee request for $128,985.

City Solicitor Dan Regan told the newspaper the fees are excessive and the city challenged the amount.

The measure prohibits pro-life advocates from coming within 15 feet of the door of any health care facility, which would include abortion centers. Within 100 feet of the entrance, pro-life advocates must stay a distance of eight feet away from anyone heading to the abortion facility.

Alliance Defense Fund attorneys challenged the local law as unconstitutional for prohibiting speech and helped represent a pro-life nurse who took on the ordinance, which prohibited her from counseling and speaking with women.

In December 2009, Fischer permanently prohibited the city using the so-called 100-foot bubble zone. That came after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit issued a key decision striking down the ordinance.