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Buffer zones outside a Bay Area Planned Parenthood haven’t quelled disruptive protest. Will a noise ban help?


Buffer zones outside a Bay Area Planned Parenthood haven't quelled disruptive protest. Will a noise ban help?

WALNUT CREEK — Patients at Planned Parenthood will soon have a quieter experience obtaining contraceptives, getting an abortion or seeking any other reproductive health care.

That’s because bullhorns, megaphones, loudspeakers or any voice amplification devices have been banned within 100 feet of the doorway entrances to the facility, located at 1357 Oakland Blvd. in Walnut Creek.

Concerned about the physical and emotional toll of noise reverberating through the reproductive health care facility’s walls and inside exam rooms, the Walnut Creek City Council on Tuesday unanimously voted to enshrine the ban in its municipal code.

Slated to take effect May 15, the new law is the city’s latest attempt to reduce the harassment, intimidation and obstructive behavior from protestors outside, which impacts patients’ ability to safely access care at Planned Parenthood. Elected officials previously approved “buffer zones” intended to keep protestors at least 100 feet from the clinic in 2022.

Notably, the amendments of that ordinance approved Tuesday do not currently apply to any other reproductive health care facilities in the city, because, city councilmembers said, they have not reported the same level of disruptions as Planned Parenthood.

Beyond the basic annoyance of listening to people loudly yell, argue or play music, noise in medical settings can also trigger stress responses in the sympathetic nervous system, potentially leading to a spike in stress, anxiety, heart rate and blood pressure – all of which can slow or even hinder healing, according to a recent report from the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Several volunteers, patient escorts and other pro-choice residents supported the new noise ban, lamenting the impact of loud jeering that can pierce the clinic’s walls.

Rev. Victoria Rue, an ordained Roman Catholic woman priest, pleaded for the city to help at Tuesday’s city council meeting, saying many Planned Parenthood patients may be emotionally fragile, if not also in the midst of economic strife, domestic violence or poor health.

“They do not need the haranguing of men and women shouting into microphones,” Rue said. “This amplification is not only intrusive, it causes even more suffering to the women and men who come to the clinic for help.”

However, abortion protesters and pro-life advocates argued that the ordinance infringes on their protected rights to speak out — which in this case are largely aimed at persuading patients to choose alternative health care services.

Sophia Martin, who said she has counseled 24 mothers to “choose life,” claims that sound amplifiers are necessary to be understood over nearby traffic noise and targeted interruptions from clinic escorts.

“Please don’t take away the ability for moms to receive the help and hope they so greatly need by taking away our ability to be heard,” Martin said, arguing that it is otherwise impossible to exercise her First Amendment rights. “I’ve downloaded a decibel reader app on my phone and will happily agree to stay within the decibel level you see fit.”

Tense confrontations are not an uncommon occurrence at Walnut Creek’s Planned Parenthood facility.

Between January 1, 2020 and March 2024, Walnut Creek police received approximately 79 calls for service related to protests outside the building; 11 of those were directly tied to disruptive noises. Despite more than two years of increased patrols in the area, Planned Parenthood staff documented 138 incidents of protestors outside the health care center between April 2022 and April 2023, specifically complaining of excessive disturbances from noise a third of the time.

“Protesters of Planned Parenthood, as I have seen, are now pushing every boundary because they think they can get away with it,” Councilmember Kevin Wilk said during Tuesday’s meeting. “They don’t respect the rights of patients even when they’re behind closed doors.”

After the amplified sound ban takes effect in six weeks, violators may be ordered to disperse or convicted of a misdemeanor, which carries up to 90 days in jail, a $500 fine, or both; that sentence and fine are doubled for a second conviction.

Assistant City Attorney Ali Wolf said Walnut Creek’s new noise amplification ban isn’t the first of its kind; the city of Sacramento also recently adopted a restriction on sound amplifiers within 100 feet of the property line of a reproductive health care facility. Wolf said that city staff was careful to ensure that the ordinance did not limit messages or topics of conversation, intended to preserve protesters’ free speech rights outside of reproductive health care facilities.

This isn’t the city’s first attempt to quell disturbances and anxieties at Planned Parenthood.

In April 2022, city officials carved out “buffer zones” on all public streets and sidewalks within 100 feet of the same clinic, which required protesters to stay at least eight feet away from anyone entering or leaving the clinic without that person’s consent–a restriction that exists across the Bay Area, including San Jose, Oakland, San Francisco and Napa.

The city doubled down on the protections laid out in its “Access to Reproductive Healthcare Facilities” ordinance in March 2023, when staff affirmed that the rules are based on specific rights protected by the U.S. Constitution and the State of California.

While Mayor Loella Haskew was hopeful that the amplified sound ban will help mitigate disruption to reproductive health care in Walnut Creek, she was disappointed that the city’s first attempt in 2022 to better protect Planned Parenthood patients’ rights had fallen short.

“I had hoped it was going to be done and over with, and that it would be good for our community, and that the people who are passionate have a chance to express their passion and remind people that they have alternatives,” Haskew said. “But it clearly isn’t working.”

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