New Illinois legislation could assign harsh penalties to sidewalk counselors

Four Illinois Democratic state representatives from Chicago have sponsored a state bill that could create not only a ‘bubble zone’ around abortion facilities, but could, due to the bill’s broad and subjective language, subject sidewalk counselors to harsh penalties for speaking to those entering abortion facilities.

The Illinois Family Institute reports:

[HB 3735] says counselors who are convicted of “intimidation” against pregnant mothers and staff members entering the abortion clinic will be subject to longer prison stays and/or fines. Sponsored by State Representatives Deb Conroy (D-Villa Park), Silvana Tabares (D-Chicago), Greg Harris (D-Chicago), and John D’Amico (D-Chicago), HB 3735 adds acts of intimidation and violence in the vicinity of abortion clinics to the list of aggravating factors in the criminal code. An aggravating factor is a fact or circumstance that increases the severity or culpability of the criminal act. If this bill were to pass, people accused of intimidation will receive harsher sentences simply because they were near an abortion clinic.

Bubble zone laws — laws which create special, restricted free speech boundaries around abortion facilities simply because they are abortion facilities — have almost always been found to be unconstitutional, as they have been deemed by the courts to be infringing on citizens’ First Amendment rights. As IFI points out:

The U.S. Supreme Court has already held in McCullen v. Coakley that buffer zones preventing sidewalk counselors from coming near an abortion clinic entrance unconstitutionally restrict free speech. It is unclear whether HB 3537 is broad enough to protect the free speech rights of those sidewalk counselors.

IFI points out the potential motivation behind the bill, saying, “This bill may… be unconstitutionally aimed to restrict pro-life speech over other forms of speech.”

The city of Chicago currently has a different bubble zone law being challenged in court, based on the assertion that it “has been selectively enforced against pro-lifers.” Live Action News’ Danny David noted:

The lawsuit alleges that in addition to the law itself being unconstitutional, police have repeatedly enforced it inaccurately and unjustly, including:

  • Telling pro-lifers that they could not come within 150 feet of an abortion clinic

  • Insisting that pro-lifers could only hand literature to those who asked for it

  • Determining that the law forbids any verbal expression from pro-life sidewalk counselors

Imposing bubble zones outside the bubble zone, telling pro-lifers they could not approach within 8 feet of someone heading to the abortion clinic – even outside the fifty foot bubble zone

Like Chicago’s bubble zone ordinance, there are potential problems with HB 3735. Illinois Family Institute adds that “the crimes of harassment and violent actions which the bill claims to prevent are already covered under the criminal code,” so this bill may be an exercise in intimidation of those seeking to reach women with the pro-life message. Also, the bill “specifically mentions abortion clinic staff members as receiving this special protection,” which IFI states could lead to false reports of harassment.

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