Louisville abortion clinic buffer zone infringes on First Amendment rights, appeals court finds

A Louisville city ordinance that demarcated a buffer zone around abortion clinics has been temporarily struck down by a federal appeals court. 

The Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals placed a temporary ban on the enforcement of the ordinance, citing First Amendment concerns. 

The lawsuit against the ordinance was brought by the Sisters for Life of Louisville, Kentucky. The group is a pro-life, religious ministry based in the city that regularly appears outside abortion clinics offering pro-life pregnancy consultation and literature.

‘Sisters for Life, several individuals, and another pro-life organization wish to offer leaflets and compassionate, if sometimes unwelcome, speech to women entering abortion clinics in Louisville, Kentucky,’ the court wrote in its opinion. ‘But Louisville-Jefferson County limited their speaking and pamphleteering in buffer zones near the entrance of each clinic. Because these limits likely violate the First Amendment[…] we preliminarily enjoin them.’

The ordinance aimed to create a sizable distance between abortion clinics and would-be protesters by criminalizing demonstrations within the area. 

The appeals court voiced particular objection to the vague wording of the ordinance, which it said risked over-extending its intended purview.

‘The County maintains that the ordinance creates buffer zones only when a facility requests painted lines outside its entrance. But that is not what the ordinance says. It applies always and everywhere there is a health care facility,’ the federal appeals court opinion reads.

It continues, ‘Nothing in the ordinance at any rate limits the scenarios in which a medical facility may ask for painted lines, and the First Amendment ‘does not leave us at the mercy of noblesse oblige.’’

The Louisville Metro council passed the ordinance in May 2021, and it has been a subject of legal debate since.

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