Thomas More Society Wins in Abortion “Bubble Zone” Settlement

Pro-Life Advocates’ Lawsuit Prompts Free Speech Education for Chicago Police

Thomas Olp

Thomas More Society attorney, Tom Olp

Chicago area pro-life advocates achieved a victory with a court settlement that results in Constitutional rights education for Chicago police. The Thomas More Society’s challenge on behalf of the Pro-Life Action League, Live Pro-Life Group and several individual pro-life counselors resulted from misapplication of Chicago’s abortion-protective “bubble zone” ordinance. In multiple cases, overenthusiastic or mistaken enforcement of this city ordinance resulted in alleged violation of the First Amendments rights of those sharing life-affirming alternatives with women seeking abortions. While the City did not admit liability, it agreed to pay attorneys’ fees.

The “bubble zone” ordinance, which has been applied exclusively at abortion facilities, designates a 50-foot radius from an entrance door as an area in which persons are prohibited from intentionally approaching closer than 8 feet to another person, unless the person consents, for the purpose of engaging in a covered act, defined as “passing a leaflet or handbill to, displaying a sign to, or engaging in oral protest, education or counseling with” the other person.

Officers will receive training on such matters as:

  • Pro-life advocates, abortion escorts and clinic personnel, if they approach closer than 8 feet from another person (within the 50 foot radius from a clinic entrance) in order to engage in a covered act, must have consent from the other person;
  • An approach to engage in covered acts is allowable if the person approached consents either verbally or nonverbally;
  • Just standing in a designated area does not amount to approaching a person within that area — there must be some movement toward the person to constitute an approach.

Ann Scheidler, Anna Marie Scinto Mesia, David Berquist and Veronica Price peacefully exercised their First Amendment rights on the public ways near Chicago abortion facilities by reaching out to women who approached the clinics. The complaint that has resulted in this settlement was filed to address the alleged unconstitutional constraints that police enforcement of Chicago’s “bubble zone” ordinance placed on the peaceful work of these “sidewalk counselors.” A primary issue has been that Chicago police officers erratically applied the ordinance against them, by, for example, requiring sidewalk counselors to stay 50 feet away from a clinic entrance door.  The police also selectively enforced the ordinance against sidewalk counselors but not against abortion clinic escorts.

In January, United States District Judge Amy J. St. Eve denied the City of Chicago’s motion to dismiss the federal complaint challenge to the “bubble zone” ordinance insofar as it challenged the constitutionality of the ordinance “as applied.”  She decided that since 2009, when the law was enacted, sufficient instances of discriminatory and inconsistent enforcement had been alleged to warrant a hearing on whether the Chicago police enforced the ordinance with “deliberate indifference” toward the rights of the plaintiffs.  She also decided, however, that since the Chicago ordinance was based on a Colorado statute that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court (in Hill v. Colorado, 530 U.S.703 (2000)), she was not authorized to find the law itself to be unconstitutional.  That ruling would have to come from a higher court than hers, she concluded.  The settlement of the “as applied” claim allows an immediate appeal of plaintiffs’ challenge to the ordinance itself.

Thomas More Society Counsel Thomas Olp explained, “Pro-abortion propaganda claims that pro-life counselors intimidate women approaching abortion clinics. That is not true.  That type of engagement would be ineffective. Pro-life sidewalk counselors compassionately and calmly approach women, one-on-one, to offer them information about abortion alternatives. The bubble zone law impedes that interaction, unconstitutionally, we believe, in violation of our clients’ First Amendment rights. With this settlement, we have secured Chicago’s agreement to train its police force on the correct application of the ordinance. If there continue to be problems in how the ordinance is applied, we will enforce the settlement agreement or re-file new allegations.  But we also do intend to continue our argument in the higher courts that the law itself is unconstitutional.”

The Thomas More Society, on behalf of the plaintiffs, plans to pursue the unconstitutionality of the “bubble zone” ordinance with an appeal to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Read the settlement agreement in the case, Veronica Price et al. v. The City of Chicago et al., here.