Activism

Supreme Court may hear case regarding discriminatory pro-life buffer zones in Pittsburgh

40 days for life

Alliance Defending Freedom has asked the United States Supreme Court to take up its appeal of Bruni v. City of Pittsburgh, regarding the enactment of a 15-foot buffer zone in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which bars pro-life sidewalk counselors from practicing their First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

The buffer zone law bans free speech on public sidewalks in painted zones outside of medical facility entrances. However, the city painted those zones around just two facilities — Pittsburgh’s two abortion businesses — and enforced the ban selectively against pro-life sidewalk counselors.

The Supreme Court struck down a similar Massachusetts law in 2014, and as a result, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld the Pittsburgh city ordinance but shockingly rewrote the law. It ruled in October 2019 that the Pittsburgh buffer zone does not apply to sidewalk counseling but only prayer or standing with a sign or wearing buttons, according to ADF. The Court ruled the ban was constitutional.

“[The Appeals court] upheld the modified ordinance’s prohibition against other types of pro-life expression,” said ADF in a press release. “ADF is arguing that the lower court lacked the authority to rewrite the ordinance and should have declared it unconstitutional in any event.”

READ: Sidewalk counselors nearly blocked from exercising free speech due to COVID-19 lockdown

The petition filed by ADF called the Third Circuit’s decision “ineffective,” noting that city officials are not required to follow it and would still be able to hold pro-lifers criminally liable. According to ADF Vice President of Appellate Advocacy John Bursch, federal courts cannot “rewrite state laws to save themselves from constitutional attack” — yet that is exactly what the Third Circuit did in this case.

“When the government regulates speech based on its subject matter or viewpoint, it violates the First Amendment,” wrote Brusch in an op-ed for The Hill. “Pittsburgh did just that when it enacted a law that bans sidewalk counseling within 15 feet of the city’s two abortion clinics, including on the public sidewalk. The city allowed others to speak within the buffer zone about sports, the weather, or anything else it sees as purely social or random, while forcing pro-life speech out. That wrongly made the sidewalk counselors’ message of love, gentleness, and help seem dangerous and illegitimate, and made it difficult for the counselors to speak with willing passersby.”

ADF is awaiting word on whether the Supreme Court will agree to take up the case.

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