Attorney: 'Bubble zone' decision not what we hoped for, but workable

Wednesday, January 13, 2021
Chris Woodward (

Supreme Court sunriseA recent decision by America's highest court keeps in place limits on the activities of pro-life groups near the entrance of abortion clinics – but doesn't infringe on one-on-one counseling that could potentially save the lives of the unborn.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided on Monday not to get involved in a case about free speech outside a Pittsburgh abortion clinic. The court's decision not to hear the case leaves in place a 2019 appeals court decision that upheld a Pittsburgh ordinance creating a 15-foot "buffer zone" where protests are barred from entrances to abortion clinics.

However, the decision by the Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals did allow for "calm and peaceful" sidewalk counseling within that zone. People just can't congregate, picket, patrol, and/or demonstrate in the immediate vicinity of the clinics.


"We're certainly disappointed because the right to free speech is for everyone, not just those in power – [and] when the government silences speakers just because they don't like what they have to say, that's always a tragedy and a loss for all speech," says attorney Kevin Theriot of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the law firm representing pro-life sidewalk counselors in this case.

"However," he adds, "we are encouraged by the fact that our clients are able to be within this zone."

Is this a done issue? Theriot says that depends on how the city of Pittsburgh continues to enforce the ordinance.

"If they continue to allow sidewalk counselors to speak in this zone like they've been doing since the court of appeals ruled, then there probably won't be another case," Theriot explains. "But if they enforce the ordinance in a way that discriminates against pro-life speakers, that could create another lawsuit and we'd end up right back where we started."

Associate Justice Clarence Thomas agreed with the high court's decision not to take up the case. According to Thomas, the case in Pittsburgh involves "unclear, preliminary questions about the proper interpretation of state law."

Still, Thomas said the court should take up the issue of buffer zones in an appropriate case. Theriot summarizes the associate justice's comments in the case.

"Justice Thomas said, 'Look, this is a problem when cities like Pittsburgh feel comfortable or feel like it's legal for them to restrict speech on a public sidewalk, one of the places where it's the most protected, and actually ban speech in these zones. That's a problem and the Supreme Court needs to take it up,'" the attorney explains – then adds his own take:

"I hope that in the future they will take a similar case and make it clear that a city can't shut down a sidewalk; and that, under the First Amendment, we all have the right to free speech and no one in government can deny that constitutional right."


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