Protest Buffer Zones at Abortion Clinics Could Get a Boost

Without the proposed legislation, police can only issue a written warning when protestors get too close to a clinic like Planned Parenthood.

The Planned Parenthood-San Francisco Health Center office on Valencia Street in the Mission District on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco police might soon be allowed to disperse protesters more quickly outside abortion clinics, as the groups’ presence has occasionally led to the harassment of patients. 

At Wednesday’s Budget and Safety Committee, Supervisor Hillary Ronen proposed changing the police code to allow both verbal and written warnings to protesters who breach the 25-foot buffer zone outside a reproductive health clinic. Current law requires police to issue a written warning to disperse protesters who enter the perimeter to harass or follow people there for health services.

Anti-abortion protesters “have become emboldened in San Francisco. If they become bigger, they become more aggressive,” Ronen said at the meeting. “I can’t tell you how upsetting that is.”

Protesters were previously denied first amendment activity within 25 feet of an abortion providing-clinic, per 2013 legislation by then-Supervisor David Campos that expanded it from the eight-foot buffer zone. The next year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a similar Massachusetts law and San Francisco amended its law to prohibit harassment or following someone within the buffer.

But with written warnings as SFPD’s only tool, protesters engage in what Ronen described as a “game of cat-and-mouse” with the police. When the police aren’t looking, they enter the barrier, harass people, and pop back out.

“The minute they see the police, they behave,” Ronen said. “We need police to be nimble, so when they see a violation of the law, they’re able to enforce it.”

A streetscaping project on Valencia Street, where a Planned Parenthood clinic is located, erased the yellow paint markers indicating the buffer zone and removed signs telling protesters of the law. Paired with the Trump administration emboldening anti-abortion protesters generally, complaints of harassment increased.

The amendment was voted out of committee and now heads to the full board.

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