Stephen M. Crampton
Stephen M. Crampton
Ann Scheidler
Ann Scheidler

Contending the city of Chicago is trampling on the U.S. Constitution, abortion rights opponents today filed a lawsuit challenging an ordinance that creates a “bubble zone” around patients approaching medical facilities.

The federal suit alleges the ordinance infringes on the First Amendment rights of “sidewalk counselors” who want to talk to women planning to terminate their pregnancies about alternatives to abortion.

The ordinance requires protesters to stay at least 8 feet away from anyone who is within 50 feet of the entrance to a health-care facility unless that person consents to the approach.

Counselors cannot engage in one-on-one conversations — particularly about a highly personal matter like abortion — from 8 feet away, the suit alleges.

Also, it alleges, counselors cannot effectively convey their message from a distance of more than 5 feet because they must shout over traffic noise and the sounds of abortion rights supporters who try to drown out opposing viewpoints.

And the suit alleges counselors cannot easily pass out literature and gift bags if they can’t get within arm’s length of passers-by.

The suit asks that the ordinance be declared unconstitutional.

Plaintiffs include the Pro-Life Action League and the Live Pro-Life Group.

Other plaintiffs are sidewalk counselors David Bergquist, a resident of far northwest suburban Harvard, and Anna Marie Scinto Mesia, Veronica Price and Ann Scheidler, all of Chicago.

Scheidler also is vice president of the Pro-Life Action League.

Scheidler said she is confident the plaintiffs will prevail.

“Only two years ago, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down a ‘buffer zone’ law in Massachusetts,” she said in a statement. “Now it’s time for Chicago’s unconstitutional ‘bubble zone’ to burst.”

The Massachusetts law had created a 35-foot buffer zone around reproductive health-care facilities.

In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled a buffer zone that extended that far from clinic entrances violated the First Amendment rights of protesters. McCullen v. Coakley, 134 S. Ct. 2518 (2014).

In addition to the city, defendants in the suit are Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson and Commissioner Rebekah C. Scheinfeld of the Department of Transportation.

Law Department spokesman Bill McCaffrey said the city cannot comment on pending litigation.

However, he said in an e-mail, the city “will vigorously defend against this suit.”

And he said the ordinance “protects the First Amendment rights of protesters and is almost identical to a statute the Supreme Court has already upheld, except that our buffer zone is half the size.”

The suit alleges the ordinance violates the right to free speech and assembly guaranteed by both the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and Article I of the Illinois Constitution.

The ordinance is so vague it also violates the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of due process of law, the suit alleges.

And the suit alleges Chicago police are violating the constitutional right to equal protection by selectively enforcing the ordinance against abortion rights opponents while giving clinic escorts and other abortion rights supporters a pass.

Attorneys representing the plaintiffs include Thomas Brejcha, state Rep. Peter C. Breen and Thomas G. Olp, all of the Thomas More Society.

Also representing the plaintiffs are Stephen M. Crampton of Tupelo, Miss., and Michael J. DePrimo of Hamden, Conn.

The bubble zone ordinance was crafted “solely to discriminate against people who wish to offer abortion-bound women information about alternatives to abortion,” Olp contended.

“No other business or industry is sheltered in this way,” he said in a statement. “Through this law, the mayor and his administration are partnering with abortion vendors to violate the rights of those who wish to reach out to women seeking abortions.”

Advocates for reproductive rights who are not involved in the suit took opposing stands on the bubble zone ordinance.

Lorie A. Chaiten of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois noted the organization has opposed the ordinance on First Amendment grounds since it was enacted in 2009.

“We of course abhor unlawful harassment of patients seeking access to reproductive health care,” said Chaiten, the director of the ACLU’s Women’s and Reproductive Rights Project.

However, she said, the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act and other legal tools are available to protect patients’ rights.

And buffer zones would interfere with the constitutional rights of other protesters, Chaiten said.

For example, she said, it would interfere with protests conducted by striking workers at a health-care facility or by opponents of a public hospital’s expansion.

A buffer zone would also prevent reproductive rights supporters from handing out leaflets objecting to a hospital’s refusal to perform post-delivery tubal ligations, Chaiten said.

“We think there are other ways to protect patients that don’t undermine First Amendment rights,” she said.

But Planned Parenthood of Illinois supports Chicago’s bubble zone ordinance.

“A bubble zone of 8 feet enables staff and patients to go in and out of health centers without being swarmed by protestors,” interim Chief Executive Officer Linda Diamond Shapiro said in a statement.

“This small distance can make an enormous difference in keeping entrances accessible and reducing aggressive confrontations.”

Former Ald. Vi Daley, who sponsored the ordinance, contended the measure balances the rights of all parties.

“The 8-foot bubble allows protestors to be heard,” she said in a statement, “while ensuring that a patient can enter a health center without obstructions.”

The case is Veronica Price, et al. v. City of Chicago, et al., No. 16-8268.