A federal appeals court upheld the law against blocking access to abortion clinics on Monday, rejecting arguments that the law infringes on freespeech rights.
The three-judge panel’s unanimous ruling in two cases, brought by an anti-abortion group and a protester, is the first appellate decision on the act President Clinton signed into law on May 26, 1994.
One challenge was filed by Joyce Woodall, an abortion protester who was arrested after kneeling in prayer at the door of a Falls Church clinic.
The second was filed by the American Life League, a Stafford anti-abortion group. The league’s lawyer argued that protesters can say anything they want as long as they don’t threaten or assault people or block entrances.
Judge M. Blane Michael, writing for the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, said the law protects people seeking or providing abortions without infringing on anyone’s First Amendment rights.
The act “strikes a balance among competing rights holders” while “those opposed to abortion or to any other reproductive health service retain the freedom to express their deeply-held moral or religious views in a peaceful, non-obstructive way,” Michael wrote.
Woodall’s lawyer, Wendell R. Bird, said he will ask the U.S. Supreme Court for a review.
“A protester can block a nuclear power facility entrance and that’s not a federal crime. A protester can block the cutting of old trees in a forest and that’s not a federal crime,” he said. “But if a protester does the exact same action in front of an abortion clinic, they are on different grounds where the rules change and it is a crime.”
But in its ruling, the appeals court said the protesters’ agenda is irrelevant.
“The Act forbids the obstructive conduct not because of the content of any message that conduct might convey, but because of its harmful effects,” Michael wrote.
The 4th Circuit delayed consideration of one issue in the case of Woodall, who argued that the act is unconstitutional because it authorizes prior restraints on speech.
The 4th Circuit said the issue was raised prematurely.
Violators of the law face prison terms of six months to life and fines of up to $250,000.