Chicago Ordinance Would Stifle Pro-Life Free Speech

State   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jan 18, 2012   |   8:24PM   |   Washington, DC

Pro-life advocates in Chicago are concerned about a newly proposed city ordinance that would put in pace a law that prompt concerns about whether pro-life groups and activists would enjoy their rights to free speech.

The City of Chicago has proposed an Ordinance (No. 10-8-334) to which both the Pro-Life Action League and its legal counsel, the Thomas More Society, object. They say the measure would impose undue burdens on free speech and public assembly, and would even threaten to suppress the constitutional rights of citizens to express their opinions about contentious issues of public policy in the public square and “marketplace of ideas.”

The Ordinance defines restricted, permit-required public assemblies to include gatherings of as few as two citizens on the public way, which is a traditional public forum for expression of free speech. Groups are required to apply for permits to conduct such public assemblies through a complex, elaborate, and vague permit scheme, which greatly hinders freedom of expression.

“The Ordinance will effectively silence all pro-life groups,” said Eric Scheidler, Executive Director of the Pro-Life Action League. “The city isn’t even clear on what the exact permit requirements are. They want to force protesters to comply with an elaborate, unwieldy, and immensely burdensome bureaucratic procedure.”

Tom Brejcha, president and chief counsel of the Thomas More Society, which has represented the Pro-Life Action League for many years and won two U.S. Supreme Court decisions in defense of its right to protest, said that the city government has overstepped the bounds of its legal authority in proposing to regulate and restrict free speech and free assembly through this Ordinance.

“The City of Chicago evidently fears civil protest so much it seems willing to trample on the fundamental entitlements to freedom of assembly and expression that are the birthright of every American citizen,” he said.

Brejcha added, “We believe that the Ordinance is unconstitutional on its face, and that its elaborate bureaucratic requirements are prior restraints on free speech posing a serious risk, if not an invitation, that police will misapply them in ways that flout the Constitution.”

He said, “Regrettably, our city may be earning a sad new reputation as a citadel of authoritarian repression. Its leaders ignore that nonviolent dissent is a sign of a healthy democracy and that ‘the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies’ (Whitney v. California, 274 U.S. 357, 375 (1927) (Brandeis, J., concurring), and not in the suppression of free speech.”

The proposal comes after the two pro-life organizations helped pro-life advocates charged under a controversial bubble zone. The city ultimate dropped charges against multiple people charged with violating that bubble zone law.

The city dismissed its case against Andrew Scholberg, who was arrested while standing outside Family Planning Associates, a late-term abortion facility on the north side of Chicago. He was arrested for allegedly blocking access to the abortion business and violating Chicago’s controversial “mini-FACE” ordinance, a local version of the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act.

The complaining witness from the abortion clinic and arresting officer did not appear in court.

“We are pleased that the City of Chicago has dismissed these false charges against a man who was properly and legally exercising his First Amendment rights on the public way,” said Peter Breen, executive director and legal counsel at the Thomas More Society. “He did nothing wrong, and was peaceful. The police commander has to stop these baseless arrests and the filing of frivolous charges.”

The City of Chicago adopted both “Bubble Zone” and “mini-FACE” ordinances in late 2009. The “mini-FACE” ordinance mimics the language of the federal FACE statute, and a guilty verdict under the City’s “mini-FACE” ordinance could give rise to a federal civil action for fines of $10,000 and permanent injunctions against pro-life activity outside a particular abortion facility.

The Thomas More Society challenged the constitutionality of this ordinance, in agreement with the ACLU, in 2009. The new bubble zone law subjects pro-life advocates to a $500 fine for merely talking to women considering abortion outside an abortion facility.

The “Bubble Zone” ordinance prohibits approaching within eight feet of a person without their consent “for the purpose of passing a leaflet or handbill to, displaying a sign to, or engaging in oral protest, education, or counseling.” The law establishes a 50-foot buffer outside the entrances of abortion centers and, within that zone, no one can come within an 8-foot zone to distribute literature, counsel or display a sign.