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Federal judge upholds 'bubble ordinance' for abortion protesters

The Oakland ordinance prohibits protesters from coming within 8 feet of patients entering abortion clinics. A Baptist minister had challenged the law after being convicted of violating it last year.

August 05, 2009|Robin Abcarian

A clash in Oakland between freedom of speech and unfettered access to abortion clinics was resolved Tuesday when a federal judge ruled that a 2008 city ordinance barring abortion protesters from coming within eight feet of women entering and exiting abortion clinics is constitutional.

"I am horribly disappointed," said the Rev. Walter Hoye, a Berkeley-based Baptist minister who challenged the so-called bubble ordinance after he was convicted of violating it last year.

In a federal lawsuit, Hoye said that the Oakland law is unconstitutionally vague and that police applied it unfairly to abortion foes.

But U.S. District Judge Charles R. Breyer in San Francisco found the law both neutral in its content and appropriately applied by police who arrested Hoye last year in front of Family Planning Specialists Medical Group, an abortion clinic near Jack London Square.

The law applies within 100 feet of clinics.

The law, said Breyer, protects access to healthcare, "an important government objective," and does not illegally interfere with the right of abortion foes to try to make themselves heard -- albeit from a distance.

Once a week for the last few years, Hoye stationed himself on the sidewalk outside the clinic, holding a sign that read, "God loves you and your baby. Let us help you." He would ask patients, "May I talk to you about alternatives?"

Breyer acknowledged that Hoye "appears to take a relatively mild-mannered approach to demonstrating," but added that not all protesters could be expected to follow suit.

The judge did admonish clinic escorts for their practice of holding up blank signs in front of Hoye's sign in an attempt to prevent patients from seeing it. While "escorts are motivated by a desire to minimize patients' distress," Breyer said, such actions nonetheless violate the law.

One of Hoye's attorneys, Michael Millen of the Life Legal Defense Foundation, said he plans to appeal Breyer's ruling. "My reaction is, 'We'll see you in the 9th Circuit,' " Millen said, referring to the federal appellate court.

Hoye, who opted for jail time rather than probation when he was convicted on two counts of violating the law last year, said Tuesday he wasn't sure when he would return to the clinic.

--

robin.abcarian@latimes.com

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