In light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, Madison will no longer enforce its buffer zone law that restricts protests within 100 feet of an entrance to a health clinic. Madison's law, which is roughly five months old, was written to keep anti-abortion protesters from harassing people seeking to use abortion and reproductive health clinics.
City Attorney Michael May, in a memo Tuesday to Mayor Paul Soglin and the Common Council, writes that although Madison's law is different from the Massachusetts law the Supreme Court overturned, the court's ruling nevertheless gives him pause.
"The reasoning of the Supreme Court raises significant concerns, in my opinion, about the continued validity of the Madison ordinance," writes May. "Because of those concerns, the City will not, as of the [June 26 decision] enforce... the buffer zone restrictions. Police Chief [Mike] Koval concurs in this determination."
The city will not enforce its law keeping protesters 100 feet from a healthcare clinic or require that protestors stay at least eight feet away from clients. However, the part of the law that prohibits protestors from blocking access to a clinic will continue to be enforced, May says.
Madison originally passed a 160-foot buffer zone in February, but then amended the zone to 100 feet in March. The city has not yet had any enforcement actions under the new ordinance. Massachusetts's law had a 35-foot buffer zone.
Madison's law was based on a Colorado law that has not been overturned by the Supreme Court. However, May tells Isthmus that two parts of the court's decision on the Massachusetts law concern him. The court found that governments can't restrict access to all clinics based on potential problems with only a few clinics. "That's exactly what we did," May says.
The court also found that other laws in place might have been enough to alleviate any concerns the law attempted to address.
"Although they didn't overrule [Colorado's buffer zone law], they suggested two of the rationales we used don't apply anymore," May says. "I need to take a timeout here."
"I found the decision disturbing," he adds. "If they were going to overturn [the Colorado law], they should have just overturned it. Now people in the real world have to figure out what to do."
Ald. Lisa Subeck, who sponsored Madison's law, says she understands the need for the city to rethink its ordinance.
"Certainly the new decision raises concerns for us and we need time as a city to look at it and evaluate it," says Subeck, who is running against Ald. Mark Clear for the state Assembly seat being vacated by Rep. Brett Hulsey (D-Madison).
But she remains concerned that women's rights will be violated without protections.
"There is a definite risk in a situation of a woman trying to access Planned Parenthood that they may be harassed, their privacy may be violated," Subeck says. "Reproductive healthcare is a right that women should have access to, without harassment or intimidation."