By Nathan Duke
Several members of the Queens City Council delegation said they opposed a new city measure that would allow police to arrest protesters outside abortion clinics because the officials believe the legislation violates the First Amendment rights of city residents.
On April 2, the Council passed the Clinic Access Bill, which would permit officers to arrest anyone blocking the entrance to a reproductive health clinic as well as allowing staff from the facility to make complaints when protestors interfere with a clinic’s operations.
The bill, sponsored by Council Speaker Christine Quinn (Dâˆ’Manhattan), was passed 40âˆ’8.
But several Council members from Queens were among the minority to vote against the bill.
“It’s a freedom of speech issue, in my opinion,” said Councilman Tony Avella (Dâˆ’Bayside), who is proâˆ’choice. “No one wants women going to these clinics to be verbally or physically abused and protesters should not be able to block access. But I think this is an attempt to push the opposition away so far that you might not even be able to see or hear them.”
Avella said he thinks the bill goes too far because of its definition of the word “premises.”
“Sometimes the devil is in the details,” he said. “Premises can be interpreted to mean the edge of the building or property line. It could mean not just 15 feet away from the clinic’s door, but 15 feet from the parking lot. We have to be very careful that civil liberties are not being attacked in this city.”
Queens Councilmen Peter Vallone Jr. (Dâˆ’Astoria) and Eric Ulrich (Râˆ’Ozone Park) also voted against the measure.
“There’s already a law on the books that I support that defends most clinics and their patrons from any sort of harassment and also allows for the right to free speech,” Vallone said. “This new law isn’t about protecting clinics, it’s about stopping protests. That’s why I did not support it.”
Ulrich said he is proâˆ’life, but that his main problem with the bill also stemmed from free speech issues.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to lock up little old Irish nuns who want to say the rosary,” he said. “I don’t think that violates a woman’s right to choose. People have a right to disagree without being disagreeable.”
Mayor Michael Bloomberg was expected to sign the bill into law this week. It will take effect 90 days later.
Quinn said women seeking reproductive health care services would have to come forward to make a formal complaint if access to a clinic were blocked, even if police or facility employees witnessed the incident.
“No one has the right to decide what a woman can and cannot do to protect her health,” Quinn said. “If any woman faces threats, harassment or fear as she approaches a clinic, she will know the city stands behind her in taking action against her harasser.”
Reach reporter Nathan Duke by eâˆ’mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718âˆ’229âˆ’0300, Ext. 156.