Harrisburg Abortion Buffer Zone Back in Court


HARRISBURG, PA – Today, Liberty Counsel is in court presenting evidence and arguments against a Harrisburg ordinance that created unconstitutional buffer zones to silence pro-life speech on public property and sidewalks around abortion clinics.

Liberty Counsel represents Becky Biter and Colleen Reilly, who have regularly engaged in peaceful sidewalk counseling to encourage women to protect the life of their unborn child. Biter and Reilly have been harassed and intimated by clinic staff and the local police since the ordinance passed. This ordinance pushes pro-life counselors sometimes 50 feet to more than 70 feet away and prohibits their freedom of speech. Liberty Counsel is presenting evidence and argument today concerning the ordinance’s gross intrusion into Biter and Reilly’s constitutional rights. Liberty Counsel will show that the city of Harrisburg blatantly ignored its constitutional obligations to protect speech by imposing an ideological ban on pro-life speech in a traditional public forum where the First Amendment provides the most robust protection.

Liberty Counsel filed a lawsuit seeking a preliminary injunction to prevent Harrisburg from enforcing the ordinance as an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment. Despite the United States Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in McCullen v. Coakley, which struck down similar buffer zones, the district court denied injunctive relief in August 2016.

Liberty Counsel appealed the district court’s decision to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that the district court had erroneously determined that the ordinance was unlikely to violate the First Amendment. On May 25, 2017, the Third Circuit issued its opinion vacating the district court’s decision. In its decision, the Third Circuit held that the district court had ignored the First Amendment’s requirement that Harrisburg demonstrate that the ordinance did not unconstitutionally burden speech in violation of the Constitution. It sent the case back to the district court, ordering the court to hold an evidentiary hearing on whether Harrisburg could satisfy its demanding burden.

“The city of Harrisburg has a constitutional mandate to protect the free speech rights of all people in its jurisdiction, and it has no authority to discriminate on the basis of pro-life viewpoints,” said Mat Staver, Founder and Chairman of Liberty Counsel. “Public sidewalks and parks have always been protected as places where people can gather to participate in the marketplace of ideas. The City blatantly ignored the First Amendment to appease Planned Parenthood and its preference for completely silencing all pro-life speech. Ideologically abandoning core constitutional requirements represents a dangerous precedent and cannot survive decades of First Amendment law,” said Staver.

Used with the permission of Liberty Counsel.

Liberty Counsel is an international nonprofit, litigation, education, and policy organization dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and the family since 1989, by providing pro bono assistance and representation on these and related topics.