'Buffer Zone' bill could create restrictions for anti-abortion protests in St. Louis city

A city that's become known for protests is about to adopt a law restricting where you can demonstrate.

ST. LOUIS — The Planned Parenthood clinic on Forest Park Avenue is the only women’s health clinic offering abortions in the City of St. Louis, which is why every day you’ll see at least a half-dozen anti-abortion demonstrators on the surrounding sidewalk.

“We’re simply saying there is an alternative and you don’t need to go into this facility,” said Mark Bowman, who drives from Ballwin to demonstrate.

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But Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia says women often see the “sidewalk ministry” as harassment disguised as help, and that police calls to the clinic increased significantly last year from 58 to about 75.

“There are many people who show up who are street counselors and who are very mild mannered and really there to do the right thing, but there have been some really troubling occurrences well documented by the police department as well as escort reports... very offensive strong language, and the ability, because there’s no way to prevent folks from blocking the driveway, reaching into cars, things of that nature so it’s very problematic," said Alderwoman Ingrassia.

Board Bill 34 creates an 8-foot “buffer zone” on either side of the driveway where demonstrators would not be permitted to stand or distribute materials.

"We’re hoping that this helps the police solve the issue that they’re having which is that they cannot, with the ordinances that we have on the books, address the problem," said Ingrassia.

Ingrassia says they decided on a distance of 8 feet because that’s what’s passed constitutional muster in other places—other larger buffer zones have been struck down. She also maintains that this will not apply to the sidewalks as a whole, only either side of the driveway.

However, Bowman still calls it an infringement on his First Amendment right — and won’t change course.

“I will follow my conscience. And whether that means I violate an ordinance by being right by the driveway so people can get the message, that’s fine.”

Ingrassia says the bill is written to incorporate all healthcare facilities, also as a legal necessity, but is aimed at Planned Parenthood. She also says she’s worked with other grassroots groups like The ACLU to ensure this wouldn’t inhibit other protests or demonstrators.

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