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N.H. Senate Votes For Abortion Zone Buffer

Concord — A bill prohibiting people from protesting within 25 feet of abortion clinics passed the Senate, 15-9, Wednesday, with four Republicans joining all 11 Democrats in support of the bill.

“(This) walks a very fine line between public safety, privacy rights and free speech,” said Sen. Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, and the bill’s prime sponsor.

Republican Majority Leader Jeb Bradley of Wolfeboro and Republican Sens. Nancy Stiles, of Hampton, and Bob Odell, of New London, co-sponsored and voted for the bill, and Sen. John Reagan, R-Deerfield, joined them in supporting it.

The bill will now go to the Democratic-led House.

Under the bill no protestors, regardless of whether they’re quietly praying or aggressively shouting, would be allowed on public land within a 25-foot radius of health facilities that offer abortions, except for hospitals. Clinics must clearly mark these buffer zones, or “patient safety zones” as the bill calls them, and put up signs that say no congregating, patrolling, picketing or demonstrating is allowed in that area.

Protesters within the buffer zone would be given a verbal warning, then a violation carrying a $100 fine for a second offense. Attorneys could also seek a court ruling forbidding further violations. The buffer zone would not apply to clinic employees acting within their official duties and people using the sidewalks on their way to other destinations.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments last month on a similar Massachusetts law with a 35-foot buffer zone. Sen. Sam Cataldo, R-Farmington, argued Wednesday for waiting to pass the bill until the high court issues a ruling, but his motion to table the bill failed.

Concord city councilors received a petition with about 50 signatures last year asking them to pursue a 35-foot buffer zone around clinics, such as the Concord Feminist Health Center on South Main Street. But the city solicitor advised the council not to adopt a buffer-zone ordinance while the Massachusetts case was pending. (The council also received petitions with hundreds of signatures opposing a buffer zone.)

Sen. Sharon Carson, R-Londonderry, questioned whether the bill was necessary and warned that passing it would put the Senate at odds with the First Amendment, which guarantees the right to free speech. During a hearing on the bill, several people testified about the peaceful nature of protests, she said. But Soucy told senators that women with traumatic experiences outside clinics are often afraid to share their stories publicly.

Other buffer zones exist for safety reasons, such as a 10-foot zone around polling places and a buffer zone around funerals and memorial services, Soucy said. This bill fairly gives patients a safe pathway to enter clinics without limiting what protesters can say if they remain outside the buffer zone, Soucy said.

But Carson said local governments already have the power to limit the time, place and manner of protests, provided those limits are narrow and content neutral. (In the Massachusetts case, the justices reportedly questioned whether the buffer zone was content-neutral because it allowed employees who might sway a woman’s opinion to operate within the zone.)

“We don’t need to have a one-size fits all solution to this,” Carson said. “If this bill should pass, we are going to run smack first into a First Amendment violation.”

Planned Parenthood of New England praised the Senate’s vote in a press release. Since the beginning of 2013, more than 60 patients have complained about “aggressive and harassing” tactics outside the Planned Parenthood’s Manchester center, Senior Policy Advisor Jennifer Frizzell said.

“A patient safety zone surrounding the entrances to reproductive health centers will ensure the privacy and dignity of patients, while improving public safety in communities where these health centers are located,” she said.

The Senate acted on more than a dozen other bills yesterday, including the following:

∎  On a voice vote, senators passed a bill that would allow the state to explore using a credit card to pay down the $4.6 billion unfunded liability in the public employee pension system. The bill will now go to the House.

∎  After debate, the Senate rejected a bill on a party-line vote that would have changed the probationary period for new teachers from five to three years.

Under current law, teachers who are not rehired within the first five years of working for a district do not have the right to request a hearing before the school board.