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Apr 05 2014

She only wants to talk to women

Is there a First Amendment right to bother strangers in the street? I sure as hell hope not.

By the end of June, the U.S. Supreme Court will have decided one of the most contentious topics facing abortion clinics and their patients today: at what point does a protester’s First Amendment rights interfere with a clinic patient’s right to seek medical care without nonconsensual proselytizing? That is the issue in McCullen v. Coakley, and a 35-foot buffer zone surrounding women’s reproductive healthcare facilities in Massachusetts. Mark Rienzi, on behalf of the anti-abortion activists who are challenging the state’s law, argued that being made to stand outside of a buffer zone inhibits his clients’ opportunities to speak with patients, and therefore is a violation of their First Amendment right to free speech.

No. Absolutely not. I say that not as a lawyer – obviously, since I’m not one – but as a person. Nobody has a “First Amendment right” to get in my face and talk to me. Insisting on talking to someone who doesn’t want to be talked to is harassment, plain and simple. I experienced it regularly as a teenager in Paris, and it’s a nightmare.

Women don’t suddenly become public property or public figures because they’re going to an abortion clinic. People in general aren’t obliged to be captive audiences for strangers who want to pester them. We’re all protected by the great and foundational Fuck Off principle.

Eleanor McCullen, the 77-year-old self-proclaimed “sidewalk counselor” and plaintiff in the lawsuit, claims that she is different from the other anti-abortion protesters because she only wants to talk to women who are seeking healthcare.

Fuck off, Eleanor McCullen. The women don’t want to talk to you, so fuck off out of it.

Scalia, of course, is all for Eleanor McCullen.

Her message seemed to resonate with Justice Antonin Scalia, who interrupted when the attorney representing Massachusetts used the word “protesters”:

“I object to you calling these people protesters, which you’ve been doing here during the whole presentation. That is not how they present themselves. They do not say they want to make protests. They say they want to talk quietly to the women who are going into these facilities. Now how does that make them protesters?”

The women who are going into these facilities don’t want to be talked to “quietly” by them. That’s not what they’re there for. I don’t want to be talked to “quietly” by some random pestering stranger who wants to convert me to her point of view when I’m on my way into the grocery store or the post office, so why the hell would women on their way into the abortion clinic want that? It’s harassment. Trying to force them to be talked to is harassment. Fuck off.

The author of the piece, Ashley Gray, is a clinic escort. She describes what these creeps are like.

One group is comprised of Catholic women who are affiliated with a crisis pregnancy center across the street and refer to themselves as “sidewalk counselors,” just like Eleanor McCullen. The characterization they use is intentional, as these women want to distinguish themselves from other, more overtly aggressive groups. These women sometimes carry signs and try to distribute pamphlets, but they prefer a more subtle approach to influencing patients and their companions.

They might begin by knocking on a patient’s car window, an aggressive action in itself, but done with a friendly smile. Then they make their pitch, “We have free sonograms across the street, here is some literature for you on the dangers of abortion, would you like a rosary?”

In my experience, few, if any, patients want to speak with these women. Some patients are polite and say, “No thank you,” while others just ignore them or ask to be left alone. When that happens, the sidewalk counselors step up their game.

“YOUR BABY HAS A HEARTBEAT.”

“THEY PUT YOU ON AN ASSEMBLY LINE IN THERE.”

“THEY TURN YOUR BABY INTO GARBAGE.”

That is harassment. As Gray says, knocking on the damn car window is aggressive. Fuck off.

By this time, however, the patients are actively trying to get away from the women, who nevertheless continue to stalk them for as far as they can, often right up to the clinic doors while trying to tell the patients, “It’s not too late, Mom!” They thrust gestational models of fetuses in the patients’ faces and say, “This is what your baby looks like inside of you.” They try to hand pieces of chocolate to patients, saying, “You must be hungry,” knowing that if a woman ingests food within twenty-four hours before she’s supposed to have anesthesia, her appointment will be successfully sabotaged. In short, the end justifies the means, even when, as is often the case, the patient is afraid or in tears.

It’s disgusting. There are five shits on the court so no doubt this will be declared a First Amendment “right,” but it’s disgusting.

The “sidewalk counselors” may not be your typical anti-choice protesters, who have become known for carrying bloody signs and loud “street preaching,” but they are just as upsetting, and perhaps even more so, because they do it under the disguise of a loving and caring person. They are not certified therapists or counselors. They have no degrees in psychology. Just because they prefer to talk, and not scream, does not make a difference in the impact or invasiveness of their actions on patients and their companions.

These people are using the First Amendment as justification to force patients, against their will, to listen to their evangelizing and to try to prevent them from exercising their right to obtain abortions. Justice Scalia’s comments reflected a profound misunderstanding of what it’s really like in front of abortion clinics, but whether you call them “sidewalk counselors” or “protesters,” the outcome is exactly the same: women feeling threatened, frightened, and harassed for obtaining reproductive medical care.

Harassment is not a god damn free speech right.

23 comments

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  1. 1
    Pliny the in Between

    We have this group that drives a panel truck covered with blown up pictures of aborted fetuses on the side where every little kid can see it. Often these are the same sort that complain about their kids being ‘exposed’ to the teaching of evolution.

  2. 2
    Ophelia Benson

    Ugggggggh.

  3. 3
    Pteryxx

    Scalia’s wife is on the board of a CPC organization and is listed on their website as a Crisis Pregnancy Counselor herself.

    ABC News, RH Reality Check

    Her CPC is a few blocks from the local Planned Parenthood clinic. I’m sure THAT is just a coincidence.

    Conflict of interest much? *spits*

  4. 4
    Blanche Quizno

    Why can’t the anti-abortion zealots just hold up signs that say, “If you want to hear what I want to tell you, come over here and ask me” and then whoever’s interested can scurry on over?

    Just like people who come to my door – I have the right to take one look at them say “Not interested” and shut the door in their face. And at that point, they have to leave. Perhaps we can install a wall with a door, with the anti-abortion nuts on the OTHER side of the door, and a sign on the door, “If you want to hear about what we think, just knock!”

    I think either of those options would work nicely :)

    I, too, experienced that in Paris – got real good at looking mean and rushed…

  5. 5
    Blanche Quizno

    Your right to “free speech” does not trump my right to not feel endangered by you. I know that if it were me who was going into that clinic, in the predictable state of mind that such an appointment entails, knowing full well that those people in that mob 35 feet away may well be armed and dangerous – shootings and bombings HAVE happened at abortion clinics, we all know – I would not want ANY of those people approaching me.

    In fact, if any of those people were to come within arm’s reach of me, I’d Mace their sorry asses. And not even say “Sorry”.

  6. 6
    Al Dente

    Free speech does not mean one has the right to be listened to.

  7. 7
    Athywren

    Ok, so they clearly already have the ability to “talk to” the people who’re going to these clinics before they reach that buffer. They’re not denied the right to speak their minds out there, right? So until they reach this buffer zone, they are free to talk, and someone who wishes to be spoken to is free to not walk away from them, just as someone who does not wish to be spoken to is free to walk away and into that buffer. So they’re pushing for the right to follow someone who has made it clear that they want to be left alone?
    I don’t see how that can possibly be seen as a right. They’re practically arguing for the right to stalk people.

  8. 8
    se habla espol

    “OK, Ms Sidewalk Counselor, go counsel a sidewalk and leave me alone.”

  9. 9
    Sam Dunlap

    …they are just as upsetting, and perhaps even more so, because they do it under the disguise of a loving and caring person.

    I wanna mace their perfidious faces. I’m yet to hear the logical argument made how pro-Life can be humane.

    nb. I’m not pro-Choice so much as anti-suffering, which I guess in this world at least, means I’m pro-Death. Maybe I’m the first, but logic dictates infant amnesia alone makes abortion the humane option…

    Creeps who have nothing better to do than traumatise girls who don’t want their imposition sound like candidates for humane RIP. That Christian compassion…they’re just bullies having fun.

  10. 10
    quixote

    And yet when beggars want to talk to people, and they are always polite and quiet about it, then it’s illegal. Interesting.

  11. 11
    Dalillama, Schmott Guy

    “I object to you calling these people protesters, which you’ve been doing here during the whole presentation.

    Would you prefer “public nuisances” Mr Scalia? How about “harassers’, how’s that description grab you? ‘Fanatical pests’ maybe? Protester is about the most benign term I can think of for these shitheads.

  12. 12
    left0ver1under

    quixote (#10) –

    And yet when beggars want to talk to people, and they are always polite and quiet about it, then it’s illegal. Interesting.

    Not always. Continued below….

    OB:

    Nobody has a “First Amendment right” to get in my face and talk to me.

    Some places have criminalized “aggressive panhandling”, those who yell at passersby or deliberately walk in front of people to impede their movement. Why shouldn’t the same laws be applied to anti-woman groups outside healthcare clinics (and proselytizers on street corners while we’re at it)? How are their behaviours any different than panhandlers?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aggressive_panhandling

    Even without such laws, interfering with people’s ability to move in a public place is a form of assault. Yelling at people who go to of health providers is just as inappropriate as unwanted wolf whistles, and should be criminalized as harassment.

  13. 13
    screechymonkey

    Try hanging out by the justices’ entrance to the Supreme Court and see if you can “talk” to Justice Scalia that way. I’m sure he’ll tell the marshals to allow you to exercise your free speech. Suuure he will.

  14. 14
    gwen

    People like her make it easy to wish for another use for a ‘Stand Your Ground’ defense, but I am anti-violence. Those people commit assault, pure and simple.

  15. 15
    Musca Domestica

    You don’t have to say a word to be a protester, or even hold any signs. Sometimes you can even protest by simply not going to a specific place (boycott, strike, etc.). Justice Scalia needs a dictionary (and an ability to use one, which can be harder to attain…).

  16. 16
    karmacat

    There are zones around voting places where there is no political advertising. As far as I know there is no one complaining about lack of free speech. So what is different about abortion clinics… Oh, yeah, women… Scalia is definitely a tool. Is it wrong to wish he will have a stroke?

  17. 17
    AnotherAnonymouse

    I’ve had the same problem with Mormons. We had a pair that would come around the elementary school bus stop and harass the women waiting for the bus to drop off the little kids. I once told a pair that I was not interested and one insisted that it was his First Amendment right to “make me listen”. So I called 9-1-1, and the pair skedaddled. After that, it took holding up the cellphone and threatening to dial 9-1-1 to keep them at bay, until their “mission” ended and they went back home.

  18. 18
    sailor1031

    I think the keyword in the above post is “stalking”. While speech may be unrestricted in cases where it does not offend Antonin Scalia and his cronies, stalking is an actual crime.

  19. 19
    iknklast

    I read one editorial on this case where the person supporting the right of the protestors claimed that if these women were refused the right to come right up to the door of the clinic, then other businesses would be able to deny that right to people protesting labor or environmental issues. They ignore one fact: That right already exists for those businesses. This is private property, not government property, and there are rights to be free of trespass. In case she wants to check it out, she could get a sign, a few pamphlets with pictures of sweat shop children missing limbs, and stand right in front of the door of the local Wal-Mart, or knock on the car doors of Wal-Mart customers in their parking lot. See how long that lasts.

    Private businesses have the right to throw solicitors or people disturbing their business off their property. Abortion clinics are private businesses. Much as I hate to invoke a business model for women’s health, that’s a legitimate argument. These women are interfering with a legal business, and as such, the business owner should have the right to keep them back from the door.

  20. 20
    LegalCat

    I assume that if I were to go to the Supreme Court building, walk inside, go up to Scalia’s office, and talk to him about why I disagree with his interpretation of the Constitution, I would not be prevented from doing so at any point by security guards, because that would infringe on my First Amendment rights to talk to Scalia. Perhaps I’ll give that a try.

  21. 21
    smhll

    Try hanging out by the justices’ entrance to the Supreme Court and see if you can “talk” to Justice Scalia that way. I’m sure he’ll tell the marshals to allow you to exercise your free speech. Suuure he will.

    My understanding is that the entire plaza outside of the Supreme Court has been declared an Anti-Free Speech Zone. It’s charming how unevenly our laws are applied and how conveniently they bend (for some).

  22. 22
    latsot

    Harassment aside – and I can’t quite believe I’m being so ridiculously abstract as to say that – there is such a thing as an expectation of privacy. We expect (not always correctly) certain things as we maraud about the place. A common expectation is that we won’t stand out in a crowd unless we do something particularly unexpected. For example, Lawrence Lessig has spoken about things like someone walking around with an elephant on a hairy string. You can’t really expect not to stand out in a crowd if you’re leading an elephant or – another of Lessig’s examples – if you are strikingly of European stock in a tiny village in rural China. Nothing at all wrong with doing either of those things, but don’t expect that people won’t notice. By contrast, we know that we can be tracked in various ways when we walk around a shopping mall, but we expect that we probably won’t be. Or that if we are, it probably doesn’t matter. At least not yet. We’ll see.

    But anyway, I think this is partly an issue about expectations of privacy. A woman goes to her doctor to say she wants an abortion. She’s referred to an abortion clinic. So far, completely confidential. Then she turns up at the clinic and is accosted by idiots. Her privacy is gone even if the doctors maintain her confidentiality. She doesn’t even have to be recognised for her privacy to be violated. She expected confidentiality to extend to her attending the clinic. She expected to not stand out in the crowd.

    The reason I mention this is not to make the actions of the appalling people who picket abortion clinics seem like an abstract violation of privacy: the problem is that people are treating actual people horribly because of their own crazy notions. It’s to suggest a way to talk about protests like this in a way everyone understands on a personal level, perhaps to shame people into not doing it. Your doctor says you’re fat and need to go on a diet. Some people worry that fat people cost the NHS more because they’re more likely to have health problems. So they turn up outside weight watchers to condemn you for being fat. The situation is a little bit different but the violation of privacy is the same. I’m old enough to remember AIDS clinics being quite routinely picketed and pickets also outside clinics that offered free condoms.

    When we visit our doctor we should expect confidentiality all the way down. Perhaps it would help to remind the people who are complaining about abortion or AIDS or who the fuck knows what that they too will probably visit a specialist at some point and they probably wouldn’t want to stand out in the crowd when they did so. But perhaps I’m assuming too much. Perhaps I’m assuming people have humanity who do not.

    I’d rather be guilty of that, I guess.

  23. 23
    Crimson Clupeidae

    Time to organize some sidewalk counseling outside rcc churches. No need to stay 35 feet from the door!

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