Anti-abortion activists say noise ordinance change threatens their right to free speech

Anti-abortion activists say a proposed noise ordinance infringes on their right to free speech, the latest escalation in a yearslong battle between an abortion clinic and the protestors outside its doors.

The Charlotte City Council’s Neighborhood Development Committee approved an update Wednesday to the city’s noise ordinance policy, which would create a 200-foot buffer around medical facilities, houses of worship and schools. Within the buffer, amplified sound is prohibited, as is “unreasonably loud noise.”

The policy will need to be approved by the full City Council.

But anti-abortion activists, who often set up shop outside of A Preferred Women’s Health Center in east Charlotte, say the ordinance infringes on their right to free speech. And if it passes, it’s likely to be challenged in court, said Daniel Parks, executive director of Cities for Life in Charlotte, a group he describes as a “sidewalk counseling ministry.”

He said his group, which regularly protests outside the clinic, seeks to offer abortion alternatives to the women who come to the clinic.

In 2017, Parks’ group filed a lawsuit alleging that the city was violating the group’s First Amendment rights. The lawsuit cited a proposed ban on parking on the street where the clinic is located, as well as citations the group was issued for some of its signs.

All of this is a pretty well-rounded picture of a targeted effort from those who disagree with us and our persuasion that every life should be protected,” Parks said.

But council member Justin Harlow said the ordinance is part of a comprehensive reform.

“This goes so much more beyond ... the elephant in the room here, around the politically charged conversation around abortion,” he said at the meeting. “We want to make sure that people have a reasonable expectation to noise while not limiting any speech.”

In the last five years, the clinic has seen an increase in the number of protestors, said director Calla Hales. Last year, a company called Latrobe Drive LLC bought the land next to the clinic, the Observer reported at the time, and granted protestors permission to use it in a letter provided to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.

Hales said the noise from the loudspeakers can be heard within the clinic, which disrupts operations.

“Free speech is the right to have an opinion and verbalize it — it is not the right to scream it at someone and make other people listen to you,” she said.

Mayor pro tem Julie Eiselt said the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department spends more resources on Latrobe Drive, where the clinic is located, than any other street in Charlotte.

There are around 20 to 30 protestors outside the clinic on any given day, Hales said, but at times there have been larger marches.

Council member Ed Driggs, who cast the one dissenting vote, questioned the motivations behind the proposed changes.

“The question really is whether this is a routine municipal action or an action that is being taken and is directly aimed at a group with political overtones,” he said at the meeting. “And I’m very concerned about that distinction.”

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Danielle Chemtob covers economic growth and development for the Observer. She’s a 2018 graduate of the journalism school at UNC-Chapel Hill and a California transplant.