Charleston council passes ordinance following protests at health care facilities

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — In front of a full chamber, the Charleston City Council on Monday passed an ordinance aimed at balancing freedom of speech and the right to protest while on the property of a health care facility.

The council, in a 21-5 vote, approved the ordinance, which came following concerns about protests outside of a West Side center that offers abortion services, the only such operation in West Virginia.

Groups both in support and opposition to abortion attended the meeting, making their presence known with signs and, at times, vocal outcry.

The measure states it is unlawful for someone to knowingly block an entrance or parking lot of a health care facility, as well as approach a person or provide them with a pamphlet without their consent. A person who is protesting additionally cannot come within eight feet of someone entering the facility while within 100 feet of such building.

Anyone who violates the ordinance could be charged with a misdemeanor, and receive up to 30 days in jail or a fine up to $500.

Charleston police requested the ordinance because of protests outside of the Women’s Health Center, which offers multiple health care services; Police Chief Opie Smith told MetroNews last week the office has received complaints about interactions between protesters and people entering the facility.

Sharon Lewis, the executive director of the health care center, explained the incidents during the meeting’s public comment period.

Patients, staff and volunteers at Women’s Health Center are regularly accosted, yelled at, harassed, yelled at and threatened and videotaped by the anti-abortion extremists who occupy the sidewalks outside of our building,” she said.

“Lie,” someone in the audience replied.

As public speakers commented on the bill, they were met with vocal support or boos. Mayor Amy Goodwin, on multiple occasions, had to address the attendees because of their behavior.

“This council is trying to be thoughtful and reflective and wants to hear everyone,” she said at one point. “That’s extremely disrespectful and extremely rude. I will not have it in this chamber. I will not have it. Both sides, enough.”

Council member at-large Caitlin Cook, who introduced the measure at the body’s May 20 meeting, said they want to balance allowing freedom of speech and protecting the privacy of people at the facility.

“It maintains First Amendment rights. It involves that privacy when accessing health care is maintained, and public safety is maintained,” she said.

City attorney Kevin Baker said they studied similar laws in other states, noting a Colorado statute the U.S. Supreme Court upheld.

“We feel pretty confident that, with the current state of the law right now, this is constitutional,” he said. “This doesn’t say you can’t be within the 100 feet. It says when you are within that zone, you can’t approach another person within eight feet. It’s really trying to de-escalate the situation, trying to take that confrontational aspect that has been happening out of the scenario.”

Anti-abortion advocates argued the language of the ordinance is an attack on freedom of speech; Wanda Franz, president of West Virginia for Life, said on Monday’s MetroNews “Talkline” the ordinance is unconstitutional, and they would challenge the ordinance in court.

State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey described the ordinance as too broad with constitutional concerns.

“Unfortunately, the Charleston City Council passed an ordinance tonight which — if upheld — would unduly restrict the rights of citizens to peacefully protest at an abortion facility. We urge the City to revisit its decision and better accommodate citizens’ free speech rights,” he later tweeted.

Baker said the city could defend the ordinance in court.

“Right now, it’s constitutional, and I am confident of that. We’ll be able to enforce it in a manner the Supreme Court said we can,” he said.

Cook noted protesting is still allowed within 100 feet of a facility; she wants people to be careful before matters become violent.

“Instead of me going into a health care facility and someone having the opportunity to get into my face and yell things, we’re just asking people to take two or three steps back so people have that privacy,” she said. “This bill applies to both sides of the issue.”

Council member Brady Campbell moved to have the measure tabled for 30 days; he asked if the city could study the costs of the proposal, noting the number of people who may need an attorney if arrested. The council rejected the motion.