Federal judge strikes down Florida clinic’s request for protest restrictions

Tuesday, May 11, 1999

A federal judge recently denied an Ocala, Fla., abortion clinic's request to create a buffer zone around the building to prohibit picketers from carrying signs with pictures of aborted fetuses and to require protesters to display disclaimers that abortions are safe and legal.

The Ocala Women's Center and Dr. James Pendergraft, who performs abortions there, filed a federal lawsuit last year against several protesters in an attempt to secure the restrictions.

Had the request been approved, protesters would have had to post a disclaimer on their signs indicating that abortion was safe, legal and accepted by the American Medical Association. Protesters would have been prohibited from videotaping at the clinics and writing down license-plate numbers.

Mathew Staver, president of Liberty Council and attorney for defendant Ed Martin, argued that the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances law or FACE only applies to threatening acts. Staver said the protesters at the clinic had assembled peacefully and had never trespassed or used physical force.

U.S. District Judge William Hodges, in his April 26 decision, agreed.

“The clear language of the statute only extends to those who use 'force or threat of force or … physical obstruction,'” Hodges wrote. “Mere words, shouted or inscribed on placards, no matter how offensive they may be, can never violate FACE, unless the words used convey a threat of force.”

In a faxed statement, Staver said he was pleased with the ruling and called the initial suit “outrageous.”

“The clinic has no concern about constitutional rights,” he said. “In fact, the clinic has no concept of the First Amendment when it requests a court to require a picketer to put a disclaimer on the back of a sign.”

Clinic officials didn't return calls.