Court upholds law protecting abortion clinics

June 17, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The new federal law to protect abortion clinics against blockades and violence withstood its first constitutional challenge yesterday as a federal judge in Virginia upheld it in a broad ruling.

Acting just three weeks after President Clinton signed the measure into law, U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema of Alexandria, Va., ruled that the law does not interfere with any rights of free speech or religious freedom of anti-abortion activists.

As Judge Brinkema interpreted the new law, those who oppose abortion may engage in "pure speech" outside abortion clinics but may be prosecuted for a federal crime and risk heavy penalties if they add any physical action to their speech.

The decision thus means that abortion opponents may say what they like, including use of words or signs to urge women not to have an abortion, but they may not "physically obstruct access" to those entering or leaving a clinic.

Judge Brinkema's ruling, which abortion foes immediately promised to appeal, is the first decision among seven lawsuits across the country challenging the constitutionality of the clinic protection law.

Abortion rights groups have said privately that they are concerned that the law may not get favorable treatment from all the judges likely to review it. Those groups have said they are most worried about the fate of the law in a pending challenge in federal court in Orlando, Fla.

The law is also under challenge in another case in Alexandria, Va., and cases in Washington, D.C., Phoenix, San Diego, and one in Alexandria, La.

None of those cases match the unusually fast pace at which yesterday's case reached Judge Brinkema. She sits on a court that makes speed a hallmark of its regular work, giving it the lawyers' nickname as the court with a "rocket docket."

Ultimately, the constitutionality of the law is expected to go to a final test in the Supreme Court.

Within two weeks, the Supreme Court may give some hint of its view on the free-speech rights of abortion protesters. The justices are expected to rule before their summer recess on a major test case on that question from Melbourne, Fla.

In her ruling yesterday, rejecting every point that abortion foes have made against the new law, Judge Brinkema said that "action, not words," is the law's focus. "Words or prayers alone" will not be against the law, she said, because they "will not restrict a person's freedom of movement."

But, the judge went on, "speaking or praying accompanied by shoving or positioning oneself to block a walkway" will violate the law, because that "will restrict a person's freedom of movement."

Judge Brinkema interpreted the law, when it applies to nonviolent protests outside clinics, as covering nothing more than is already outlawed by state laws against trespass, physical assault, or "false imprisonment."

Her opinion was interpreted by the American Civil Liberties Union yesterday as allowing protesters to stop a woman headed into a clinic for a brief interval -- 15 seconds or so -- to attempt to speak to that person, or hand her a leaflet, a picture, or a plastic fetus.

Catherine Weiss, the ACLU's abortion rights litigation director, said her organization would not support the new law if it made a crime of such a brief obstruction of a woman on a public sidewalk.

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