Police confer at Albany abortion clinic one of the many times they’ve been sicced on pro-lifers by clinic staff in recent months [Photo by Corrina Gura]
It was a great relief when the police stopped clashing with pro-lifers over the Chicago “Bubble Zone” law at the Planned Parenthood location in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood in early 2011. But that relief was short-lived, as trouble quickly started brewing at Family Planning Associates’ Albany Medical-Surgical Center on the far north side of Chicago, a mile from the League’s main office.
Sidewalk counselors began calling the office with complaints that police officers were forbidding them to stand in the alleyway behind Albany—a place our counselors have stood for nearly two decades to better reach out to abortion-bound women. Another counselor was accused of throwing rocks at cars entering the clinic and placing a wad of gum on a vehicle—ridiculous accusations to level at the peaceful, highly experienced counselors at Albany. These police encounters finally culminated with the arrest of a pro-lifer praying in the alley.
Officers Ignorant of the Law
The most troubling aspect of these encounters has been the ignorance and confusion of the police about the Bubble Zone law. For instance, one morning a police officer told two counselors that they couldn’t stand “within 15 feet of the clinic.” This instruction was particularly confusing because the Bubble Zone ordinance makes reference to “50 feet” and “8 feet” but never “15 feet.” Specifically, it requires anyone within 50 feet of a clinic entrance to get permission before approaching closer than 8 feet to someone entering the clinic, but does not apply to someone standing in place.
I went to the officer’s car, bringing a copy of the disorderly conduct ordinance, where the Bubble Zone language is found, and asked him about the directions he had given these counselors. He started to explain that we cannot step onto clinic property or block people from entering the clinic. So I pulled out a copy of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, a federal law signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994 which deals with blocking a clinic entrance, and showed it to the officer. “Yes,” he said, “this is the bill,” mistaking it for the 2009 Chicago Bubble Zone ordinance.
The officer was very friendly, but he explained to me that someone at the clinic—we suspect the administrator, Diana Lammon—was pressuring the police to make an arrest.
Sergeant: “I’m Not a Happy Man”
The very next day, a different set of officers arrived on the scene—and they were far less sympathetic than the others had been. A Sergeant Kivel stepped out of his squad car telling pro-lifers, “I am not a happy man.” He ordered the counselors to leave the alley or risk arrest. Then he walked over to the clinic’s street entrance and told the pro-lifers there they couldn’t stand within “this area,” pointing with his finger. I asked how far back we were supposed to stand and he said the law says we cannot stand within 50 feet of the entrance, indicating a distance that was actually closer to 25 feet.
When I asked Kivel where in the Bubble Zone law it said these things, he said that if we want to discuss the law and its interpretation, we can do it after he has taken us into the station. He would not look at the text of the law or discuss it because “if I discussed these things with everyone, that’s all I’d ever do all day long.” I offered to call an attorney to discuss this with him over the phone; he again refused.
Kivel even went so far as to say that if we weren’t violating the bubble zone law, there were still many other laws he could enforce against us—loitering, littering, blocking pedestrian access to the sidewalk, placing signs on the public way and so forth. But despite this threatening announcement, no one was arrested that day.
From Bubbles to Signs
In response to the regular presence of “Deathscorts” (pro-abortion clinic escorts) at Albany this year, significantly disrupting our sidewalk counseling ministry, the League had signs printed in April, informing women that free help is just one block away at the Women’s Center. Counselors stake these signs in the public parkway in front of and around Albany, ensuring that abortion-bound women have access to our pro-life message, even when the Deathscorts are at their worst. Not surprisingly, the clinic staff aren’t big fans of these signs.
In fact, just as my co-worker John Jansen and I were leaving the clinic one morning, a clinic staffer rounded the corner clutching several of our signs in her hands! I told her they were ours and she called out, “Go advertise in front of your own establishment!” She did, however, give the signs back.
A few days later, the clinic maintenance man, Tim, decided it was his job to remove our signs from the public parkway. Pro-lifer Andrew, who was there praying, told Tim those were his signs. Tim replied that they were garbage and Andrew wouldn’t be getting them back. He tossed the signs into his truck and drove into the clinic parking lot, where he deposited them in the dumpster.
Andrew promptly called the police to report the theft of our signs. But the police officers concluded that Tim could legitimately remove and dispose of them, although they did ask that Tim retrieve the signs from the dumpster and give them back.
Emboldened by this permission to commit theft, the clinic has on several other occasions taken our signs and thrown them away. One clinic worker even wrestled some signs out of the hands of a counselor!
Pro-Lifer Arrested on Dubious Charges
A week after the first sign theft, veteran activist Andy Scholberg—one of the ultimately victorious defendants in the epic NOW v. Scheidler lawsuit—was standing in the alley praying the Rosary aloud—in French. A Deathscort told him to move away from the driveway, but Andy ignored him and continued to pray. The police were summoned and Andy was arresting for violation of the Bubble Zone law. He spent the next six hours at the 16th Precinct lock-up before being released with a July 6 court date.
Andy no doubt irritated the Deathscorts and clinic staff with his prayers, but he never blocked the entrance or violated the Bubble Zone in any way—a fact that the clinic videos would have substantiated. However, no one from the clinic bothered to show up for Andy’s court appearance and the case was dismissed.
What Does the Law Really Say?
A consistent feature of the police interaction at Albany is their insistence that we pro-lifers cannot stand or even walk in the alley behind Albany. This seems to be the issue underlying Andy’s arrest. Attorney Tom Olp, working on behalf of the Thomas More Society, researched the laws about standing in public alleys and concluded that:
“A regular public alley in Chicago would be considered a traditional public forum for First Amendment analysis. Individuals should be entitled to stand in the alley and engage in handbilling and verbal intercession if they are not blocking traffic.”
Olp also concluded that confiscating signs while the owners of the signs were present seems to violate our First Amendment rights, although there is apparently a vague Illinois law on the books that allows items left in public parkways to be removed by any citizen. But as the police at Albany are interpreting it, this would, for example, allow someone to make off with a bicycle parked on the sidewalk while its owner is in a store—without committing any crime! Our signs are no different.
League Seeks Meeting with Police
In response to the ongoing problems at Albany, the League and its attorneys from the Thomas More Society Pro-Life Law Center are seeking to set up a meeting with Chicago Police officials and the Corporation Counsel for the City of Chicago. We hope to be able to resolve these issues without any further arrests and continue our Constitutionally-protected life-saving mission at Albany abortion center.