SFPD keeps abortion clinics safe and gives First Amendment rights to protesters

For the past three weeks, police have been using a municipal code — which bars people from aggressively pursuing others — to keep abortion clinics in The City secure in the face of aggressive anti-abortion protesters, according to Police Chief Greg Suhr.

This effort, which is a stop-gap measure awaiting legislation in the works that will permanently deal with the issue, follows a June U.S. Supreme Court ruling that barred buffer zones — such zones existed in San Francisco — around such facilities.

In June, the Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts law mandating a 35-foot security buffer around abortion clinics. The ruling in McCullen v. Coakley bars such buffers nationwide because it infringes on First Amendment rights.

But Wednesday night, Suhr told the Police Commission that the department has been enforcing a city code in order to keep clinics safe from aggressive protesters. Thus far, he noted, no one has been cited or arrested.

Suhr also mentioned legislation in the works that would allow police to move protesters away from a clinic for a time and then allow them to return. The idea, he added, would be to make sure abortion clinics are safe, can serve clients and that people's First Amendment rights are upheld.

“We have been working on legislation for the last few months in response to the Supreme Court ruling,” Supervisor David Campos said. Those efforts, Campos said, have included Planned Parenthood, the Police Department and the City Attorney's Office.

Campos' legislation would be an anti-harassment ordinance preventing the “kind of harassment that we are seeing … where people are being followed,” he said. A similar law in Massachusetts is being used as a model.

“We will be introducing something very shortly,” he said, adding that he would be glad to work with anyone on these efforts. To that end, Campos met with the Mayor's Office on Thursday to inform it for the first time of his legislation.

“The mayor and Supervisor Malia Cohen are working with the City Attorney's Office to craft legislation and it will be introduced in a few weeks,” said Christine Falvey, a spokeswoman for Mayor Ed Lee. “The mayor wants to make sure that women and families in San Francisco are not denied access to family planning and reproductive health services.”

The Mayor's Office said it was working on separate legislation since late July, although it is almost identical to Campos'.

Until legislation is passed, police will be using city code to secure abortion clinics.

City Code Section 122 says that it is “unlawful for any person to engage in aggressive pursuit of another.” Aggressive pursuit is defined as “willful, malicious or repeated following or harassment of another person.” It also includes communications not in person with the “intent to cause annoyance, intimidation or fear on the part of the person being pursued.”

Violators could face a fine of up to $500, up to six months in County Jail or both.

Planned Parenthood of Northern California spokeswoman Miriam Gerace would not comment on these efforts beyond saying that her agency is hopeful about current and future plans around abortion clinic safety.

There are a handful of such clinics in San Francisco, but the Planned Parenthood site attracts the most attention given the organization's prominent stature. The Department of Public Health also provides abortion services at one location in San Francisco.

“We expect The City to continue to support these rights,” said Ellen Schaffer, director of the Silver Ribbon Campaign to Trust Women, whose aim is to encourage a woman's right to choose. She noted that San Francisco has been at the forefront of protecting a woman's right to choose “without harassment and intimidation.”

In 1993, The City adopted a law that created an 8-foot bubble zone around anyone who is within 100 feet of such facilities. A subsequent law created a 25-foot buffer zone around clinics.

National Right to Life, an anti-abortion group, did not return calls for comment.

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