City Council President Steven Steel is sponsoring a bill to set up buffer zones around Toledo’s only abortion clinic and other medical facilities. But by his own account, nothing would be illegal there that isn’t already unlawful. Instead of spending council’s time on redundant and potentially intimidating legislation, he should just ask the police department to station an officer at the abortion clinic — if even that is necessary.
The main change the bill would make, Mr. Steel said, is raising some misdemeanors, such as disorderly conduct, to a higher level in the buffer zones. He said that under current law, disorderly conduct might be a minor misdemeanor; people ticketed for it might just keep doing what they were doing. But Sgt. Kevan Toney, a Toledo police spokesman, said that if someone persists in disorderly conduct, he can be arrested under current law.
Abortion opponents suggested that the bill might violate freedom of speech. But Mr. Steel said the proposal was much like one adopted in Columbus. And Greater Columbus Right to Life did give its volunteers guidance saying the organization’s concerns with the initial proposal there had been resolved by amendments; the final ordinance wasn’t as restrictive as the organization’s own policies.
But GCRTL Executive Director Beth Vanderkooi said her organization opposed even the amended Columbus bill. The guidance was meant to reassure volunteers the original proposal had scared. And while no one from her organization had been arrested under the Columbus ordinance, she said, introducing something like it in Toledo might intimidate pro-lifers here.
Meanwhile, Sergeant Toney said, there have only been two police reports in 2017 for incidents at the Capital Care Network abortion clinic. At least one of them was filed by an off-duty officer hired to work there.
That minuscule number of police reports may mean there isn’t actually much of a security problem at the abortion clinic. But it may also mean there isn’t enough law enforcement there, and people are getting away with illegally harassing patients.
If the latter is the case, protecting women’s right to abortion requires a police presence outside the clinic to enforce the law. If an officer is sent, he or she should be able to control the situation even without Mr. Steel’s legislation. But if the proposal is enacted and an officer is not sent, the new law is unlikely to stop lawless characters from committing crimes. The officer, then, may be needed; the new law is not.
So Mr. Steel is wasting council’s time — and worse: A buffer-zone law risks chilling the expression of activists who are not violating it. They may not be sure what the law actually prohibits, and they may give it a wide berth. But a police officer genuinely committed to protecting both abortion rights and free-speech rights could help make sure everyone understands what’s legal and what isn’t — and that crossing that line will have consequences. That way, both patients and activists might feel safe.
This isn’t a job for council. If there’s a problem here, it’s a job for the police.
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