| Fibonacci Blue, Creative Commons

Federal judge blocks Maine no-protest law

A federal judge issued a temporary injunction Monday forbidding Maine’s attorney general and the Portland police from enforcing a portion of a state law that restricts anti-abortion protests outside abortion clinics.

Use of a noise restriction to stop pro-life protests is an unconstitutional, content-based violation of free speech rights, U.S. Chief District Judge Nancy Torresen, an Obama appointee, ruled. 

Maine Attorney General Janet Mills sued Lewiston pastor Brian Ingalls in October, claiming he violated noise restrictions in the Maine Civil Rights Act while preaching outside the Planned Parenthood Portland facility on Congress Street. Andrew March, another pastor at the Lewiston church called Cell 53, took up the Congress Street preaching after the lawsuit.

After Planned Parenthood employees repeatedly called police to report March for violating the Civil Rights Act, he requested an injunction in December, saying that his constitutional right to free speech was in jeopardy.

The Maine Civil Rights Act classifies as a violation “intentionally making noise that can be heard within a building” if the intent of the noise is to “jeopardize the health of persons receiving health services within the building; or ... interfere with the safe and effective delivery of those services within the building.” 

In his request for the injunction, March cited several instances in November and December in which Portland police officers told him to lower his voice but did not try to quiet others nearby, including a street musician, environmental protesters, and counter-protesters who shouted at March.

Torresen, however, did not address these specific instances. She ruled instead that the statute’s noise provision was unconstitutional based solely on its wording. As the statute applies exclusively to speech intended to disrupt services offered inside abortion clinics, it “violates the First Amendment rights of an individual who wishes to voice his opposition to abortion on a public sidewalk,” she ruled.

Because the law applies only to speech that is opposed to what goes on in abortion clinics, that speech “may be ‘drowned out’ of the marketplace of ideas,” Torresen wrote. “The Plaintiff has met his burden of establishing that he will suffer irreparable harm absent injunctive relief.”

Neither a spokesman for the Maine Attorney General’s office nor Andrew March returned requests for comment. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine refused to comment on the case.