City sued over ‘Bubble Zone’ ordinance; Lawyers cite free speech

Protesting, passing out leaflets not allowed in 160-foot zone around certain buildings
City sued over ‘Bubble Zone’ ordinance; Lawyers cite free speech
Pro-life protesters

Members of Madison’s City Council unanimously passed an ordinance called the Bubble Zone at Tuesday’s meeting.

The ordinance bans people from coming too close to someone else to pass out leaflets, to protest or to educate in certain areas.

Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys filed a lawsuit in federal court Wednesday against the city to seek an emergency injunction.

Senior Legal Counsel Matthew Bowman said the ordinance violates the First Amendment, and unfairly targets pro-life supporters who try to approach women outside abortion clinics.

The ADF filed the suit, in part, on behalf of the pro-life group Vigil for Life that prays outside of the east side Planned Parenthood weekly. In the past, it has approached women about choices other than abortion.

“All citizens have the right to leaflet on a public sidewalk, even pro-life people,” Bowman said.

Madison’s new ordinance creates buffer zones 160 feet from the entrance of buildings that have a licensed physician. In each zone, people can’t come within 8 feet of others to leaflet, counsel, educate or protest.

“When raising your voice interferes with people’s ability to access health care, it’s a different story,” District 1 Alder Lisa Subeck said.

Subeck used to work for Madison nonprofit NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin. She argues the ordinance doesn’t violate free speech.

“Certainly there is nothing in this ordinance that prevents the protesters from being there, nothing that prevents them from holding signs, nothing that prevents them from speaking,” Subeck said. “In fact, that’s the beauty of it because we’re able to protect that First Amendment constitutional right to free speech and at the same time trying to protect patients trying to access health care.”

“That’s the worst kind of danger under the First Amendment for the city to be able to do,” Bowman said. “To be able to give itself the power to ban leafleting across the board and then only prosecuting the people it disagrees with.”

Meanwhile, City Attorney Mike May said in a statement, “The city modeled its ordinance on a law in Colorado that was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in Hill v. Colorado, a 2000 decision. We intend to defend our ordinance and expect a similar result. Because the matter is now in litigation, I won’t comment further.”

Colorado’s law is the same, except the buffer around buildings is 100 feet, rather than 160 feet.

Besides Planned Parenthood, Madison’s ordinance creates zones in front of the Student Government’s Office Building, UW’s Medical Sciences Buildings and Wisconsin’s Primate Research Center.