Burlington Abortion Clinic Says: No Free Speech Allowed

By Kevin Joseph Ryan

The Burlington offices of Planned Parenthood, located at 183 Saint Paul Street, have requested the City Council create a 35 foot barrier around the property upon which it is located, where “no person or persons may knowingly congregate, patrol, picket or demonstrate….” In other words, no free speech or demonstrations would be allowed. Since Burlington has played host to Planned Parenthood for over forty years, the reason as to why this change is needed at this time is murky, unless you know the folks involved.

Planned Parenthood itself drafted this ordinance proposal and presented it to the City Council for passage. The Director of Public Affairs for Planned Parenthood of New England, Jill Krowinski is also the Vermont State Representative for Burlington (Chittenden 3-3). She was appointed by Governor Shumlin in February of 2012 to replace Rep. Rachel Weston. Krowinski needs to run for re-election this fall, and apparently has decided to follow the axiom, let no crisis go to waste. In this case, it appears she may have even created a few.

Planned Parenthood, for years, has been the subject of protests and vigils against abortion services, by groups such as Vermont Right to Life. Mary Beerworth, Executive Director of Vermont Right to Life, says there is no issue requiring passing such a draconian proposal. “We protest the third Saturday of every month, and have for years, with no problems.” Said Beerworth. “We are not going to sit around and see our free speech rights trampled.” She indicated that the organization may take legal action should the Burlington Council pass this “protest buffer zone.”

Beerworth further indicated that this is not the first time Krowinski has been involved in creating controversy in Vermont politics. In 2010, Krowinski was central to a media campaign against then Lieutenant Governor Brian Dubie during his gubernatorial run. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England spent nearly their entire media budget on ads critical of Dubie regarding his support for low-income abortions. “…[H]is record and his agenda are risky for Vermont women and families,” said Krowinski in a planned Parenthood ad run during 2010. “There is so much at stake in this election and it’s important for Vermonters to know that Dubie won’t protect access to affordable reproductive health care services.”

That view, almost verbatim, was reflected earlier this year in critiques of Republican presidential candidates, both nationally in a narrative known as “The War on Women,” and specifically by Governor Shumlin. However, at the time this narrative was first used, here in Vermont in 2010, Jill Krowinski and Planned Parenthood used it to defeat Dubie by roughly 3,000 votes and ensure Shumlin’s election. Let it not be said the Governor does not know how to return a favor. In either case, questioning social conservatives on low-income abortion and birth control funding was a strategy pioneered by liberal strategist Celinda Lake and her company, Lake Research Partners, who reported that their client, Planned Parenthood, used this information to help “ensure Shumlin’s close victory.”

Since the 2010 effort was successful for Krowinski, both in getting Shumlin elected and getting herself an appointment to the Vermont Statehouse, she has apparently decided to double down and approached the City Council on May 15th with the proposal to ban protests within 35 feet of the property where Planned Parenthood is, as well as any premises where “…health care services or health care counseling relating to the human reproductive system” are offered. While this may well end all protests on all of the University of Vermont Campus, Fletcher Allen Heath Care Hospital or even any Rite Aid which offers birth control, the focus is really on the Saint Paul Street offices of Planned Parenthood, according to Krowinski.

“Since we have been on Saint Paul Street…..currently, patients and staff have been physically approached and verbally harassed as they enter into the Burlington health center, creating a serious public safety issue,” Krowinski told the City Council. In addition, she offered the information that “several complaints have been placed with the Burlington Police…”, but offered no evidence as to whether anyone had actually called BPD, except herself. Despite this lack of any evidence of an issue, the City Council voted to send the protest ban onto the Ordinance Committee for consideration, 13-1. The sole objection came from Councilman Paul Decelles (R-Ward 7), seemed confused. “What I don’t have are facts. I don’t know what laws are in place now, I don’t know how many reports are being cited, I don’t know if arrests have been made…none of us do.”

Follow the May 15th meeting, where over 50 people testified to the City Council both for and against this law, the issue of protests at Planned Parenthood has been quiet, that is until last week. On June 6, pro-life protestor Jeff Christman was shoved during a vigil by a volunteer at Planned Parenthood, who then reported the incident to Burlington Police. No arrests or citations were issued, but the City Council now has plans to fast-track the ordinance for passage by July. The City Council has announced the Ordinance Committee will meet on Tuesday, June 19th at 6:30 in City Hall Conference Room 12. In a highly unusual move, the Ordinance Committee’s Standing Chairman, Chip Mason will not be involved in this meeting, but will be replaced by City Council President Joan Shannon, who originally introduced the proposal.

The timing of the entire proposal is highly provocative, coming on the heels of a February ruling upholding a 35 foot buffer zone around abortion clinic property in Massachusetts, by Federal District Judge Joseph Tauro. While Judge Tauro found that a 35 foot buffer does not violate the First Amendment right to free speech and protest, his decision would seem to be in conflict with the United States Supreme Court’s decision in the Madsen case, which found that a 35 foot barrier is permissible from the clinic’s door, but not from it’s property line. In the 2011 Snyder case, the USSC found that even “outrageous” speech cannot even be held civilly liable, when it takes place on the public sidewalks.

Since the Burlington protest ban surrounding abortion clinics does not seem to be based on any actual incidents with protestors, and is likely to be overturned, one must wonder how this ordinance will protect any clients of Planned Parenthood, or any other health care facility. With the City Council hustling the bill into law and many constitutional and practical questions to be answered, the “No-Protest” proposal looks less about public safety and more about Jill Krowsinski’s re-election campaign. When asked by TNR if she had worked on the “No-Protest” proposal with her former media consultant and partner of two years ago, Celinda Lake, Krowsinski indicated she had never heard of her.