A bill is pending before the Westchester County Board of Legislators that is designed to silence pro-life witness outside of abortion clinics. It is similar to the bill that was passed by New York City a few years ago, about which I wrote here and here. The bill hasn’t yet been voted on, but it remains a significant risk.
Here is the statement that I submitted to the Board, at its hearing last night:
I submit this statement in opposition to the proposed legislation concerning access to so-called “reproductive health care facilities”.
First, the proposed changes to the law are unnecessary. There is no evidence that there is a substantial problem that needs to be addressed by this bill. According to statistics provided by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, there has been only one arrest in the entire state since 2000 for violations of the State clinic access law, and no criminal convictions. There is no need to strengthen laws that are never used, since there is no problem that needs to be addressed.
The second reason for our opposition to this bill is that it is unconstitutionally overbroad and vague. It is a established principle of constitutional law that any attempted regulation of speech be content-neutral, and narrowly tailored to meet a compelling state interest. This is particularly true when the speech occurs on a public sidewalk, which has been described by the Supreme Court as a “public forum” where citizens generally have a First Amendment right to speak and gather together. This bill fails to satisfy this standard, and creates a significant risk that people would be prosecuted or sued for the mere exercise of their right to free speech and assembly.
This bill is not neutral, because it specifically targets the conduct and speech of those who oppose abortion. It is also vague and ambiguous, so that persons could not possibly know what kinds of behavior or speech are prohibited. One of the provisions would make it a crime to “interfere” with the operations of “reproductive health care facilities”. Yet that term is undefined and utterly subjective in meaning, and would thus chill the free speech rights of those who wish to speak to women seeking to enter those facilities.
Even if one were to ignore the lack of any history of problems at these facilities and assume that there was a “compelling state interest” here, this bill cannot be fairly described as “narrowly tailored”. The bill would create a zone that goes far beyond any statute that has been approved by the courts. No law has included such areas as public parking lots and bus stops that are within 200 feet of a facility, and created a large “bubble zone” around the “spaces” — whatever that term means — between those locations and the facility. There can be no justification for such a broad zone where the free speech rights of citizens will be restricted.
This unnecessary bill is clearly aimed at suppressing speech, because that speech is disfavored by the owners and operators of abortion clinics. This discriminatory legislation should be rejected.