Get rid of buffer zone: City of Madison should listen to the Supreme Court Print
Written by Mary C. Uhler   
Thursday, Jul. 03, 2014 -- 12:00 AM

On February 25 of this year, the Madison city council passed a new ordinance requiring a 160-foot “buffer zone” around any healthcare clinic in the city.

A modified version of the ordinance was passed in March, narrowing the zone to 100 feet from a medical facility's entrance and 30 feet from its driveway.

This ordinance was proposed primarily in response to the presence of pro-life “sidewalk counselors” who have kept up a regular presence outside the Planned Parenthood Clinic on Madison’s east side for 10 years.

Supreme Court rules against buffer zones

The Madison ordinance could now be in jeopardy after the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling on June 26 that struck down buffer zones at abortion clinics. The Supreme Court decision reversed an appellate court decision upholding a 2007 Massachusetts law that made it a crime for anyone other than clinic workers to stand within 35 feet from the entrances of Planned Parenthood clinics in Boston, Springfield, and Worcester, Mass.

The Supreme Court said that the Massachusetts law blocked public sidewalks that have been traditionally viewed as open for free speech. The court distinguished protesters from those who “seek not merely to express their opposition to abortion, but to engage in personal, caring, consensual conversations with women about various alternatives.”

The Madison buffer zone is actually over four times the size of the Massachusetts buffer zone.

Madison ordinance should be struck down

In reacting to the Supreme Court’s ruling on June 26, Matt Sande, legislative director of Pro-Life Wisconsin, applauded the Supreme Court “for upholding the free speech rights of peaceful and prayerful pro-life people who minister to vulnerable women on the public sidewalks outside America’s abortion clinics.”

In addition, Sande said, “We believe the Madison [buffer zone] ordinance should be struck down because it attacks free speech rights as its first method of correcting an alleged problem of access to the Planned Parenthood abortion clinic.” There are existing laws in place that could be enforced, if necessary, against demonstrators who directly impede individuals from entering abortion facilities.

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances” (my boldfaces).

I urge concerned citizens to contact members of the Madison Common Council urging them to get rid of this buffer zone law. Go to to obtain information on how to contact your alderperson.

Update: As reported by the Wisconsin State Journal, on July 1, Madison City Attorney Michael May issued a memo saying the Supreme Court's Massachusetts decision raises "significant concerns" about the validity of the city ordinance, and that the city will not enforce the provisions of the ordinance that contain buffer zone restrictions. The city will continue to enforce part of the ordinance that prevents people from physically obstructing others from attempting to enter health facilities, May wrote.

Matt Bowman, senior legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing parties challenging Madison's ordinance in court, said the city has been imposing an unconstitutional law and he is pleased with May's new posture. He called upon the city of Madison to consent to his client's request for an injunction and for repeal of the ordinance. May said his office will continue to analyze the impact of the Supreme Court decision and may suggest appropriate amendments to the city's ordinance.