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Opinion

Editorial: Access bill blocks free speech

A proposed Westchester County law to protect clients,

A proposed Westchester County law to protect clients, workers and volunteers at reproductive health care facilities is well intentioned, but on balance, it cannot overcome its obvious constitutional flaws. Credit: iStock

No one should be harassed, intimidated or face physical threats or violence when dealing with emotional and sensitive health care decisions. Nor should a protester's constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech, especially on the wrenching issue of abortion, be muzzled.

A proposed Westchester County law to protect clients, workers and volunteers at reproductive health care facilities is well intentioned, but on balance, it cannot overcome its obvious constitutional flaws.

The Reproductive Health Care Facilities Access Act is a local reaction to a national movement to restrict abortion rights, yet supporters have no evidence that this is a problem in Westchester. The bill creates a 25-foot buffer zone from a facility -- including its driveway and entranceway, as well as any public parking lots within 200 feet -- where a person is pointedly banned from engaging in intimidation, harassment or physical obstruction.

Those perimeters could force protesters to be out of sight of clinics. It sets fines at up to $1,000 and up to six months in prison for the first conviction and $5,000 and a year's imprisonment for subsequent ones.

The bill's intent is to prevent harassment of clinic patients and workers. But it provides no definition of this offense. Is it shouting accusations? Holding up graphic pictures? Handing out rosary beads? Praying? This pretty much means it's whatever bothers the person who feels threatened. And courts usually find that level of imprecision outweighed by strict protections for free speech in the state and federal constitutions.

The bill also authorizes a person whose access has been deterred to bring a civil action against a protester and seek attorney's fees. And it transfers the right to sue to a clinic worker or volunteer.

The fear of getting caught up in a potentially expensive, lengthy and ongoing court tussle may be enough to quell protesters, and chill their speech. And while that might be the goal, that is the bill's defect as well.

If harassment, violence or blocked entrances are problems, women and clinic personnel in Westchester can use strong state and federal laws to stop it. The federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act outlaws violence, intentional property damage, intimidation and force against people entering such a facility. And while many states have failed to pass laws that protect women and clinic workers, New York is not one of them. It is among 15 states and the District of Columbia that have such right-of-access laws.

The Westchester County Board of Legislators is scheduled to vote Monday on the facilities access act. The board shouldn't pass it. The bill creates more problems than it solves.

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