Proposal aimed at quieting anti-abortion protests outside Chicago clinic moves forward in City Council

CHICAGO — Recurring anti-abortion protests outside a downtown women’s health clinic may soon be dampened by a new ordinance limiting nearby loud sounds.

Protesters have targeted the West Loop’s Family Planning Associates clinic at the intersection of West Washington Boulevard and North Desplaines Street for years, said Ald. Bill Conway, 34th Ward. They rush toward arriving patients and amplify sound so loud that it disrupts work being done inside, he said.

The ordinance Conway sponsored that passed through the City Council’s Public Safety committee Tuesday seeks to block the use of loud noise-making devices directly outside the clinic.

“I personally observed protesters putting amplifiers up against the wall, making it so loud inside that clinicians can’t hear patients speak and the building shakes,” Conway said.

A nearly identical ordinance sponsored by Conway passed through the committee in November, but was held up before a full council vote when city lawyers shared legal concerns. The ordinance was altered to refine the area in which the restrictions apply, making it “as defensible as we can make it,” city attorney Rey Phillips Santos said Tuesday.

As the first ordinance advanced, several aldermen shared concerns that the noise-regulation measure would stifle First Amendment rights. Those critiques were repeated Tuesday as Ald. Nick Sposato, 38th Ward, and Ald. Jim Gardiner, 45th Ward, voted against the legislation.

“I’m a little surprised that we have four attorneys in here who think it’s okay to silence freedom of speech,” Sposato said. “Little unclear to me why we are singling out abortion clinics instead of other places.”

But the legislation was broadly supported by the committee’s members, who pushed back on the criticism to argue that the ordinance specifically targeted sound amplification, not protest.

“This is pretty regular business,” Ald. Maria Hadden, 49th Ward, said. “We’re not limiting free speech or the right to assembly at all.”

After the vote, Conway said he visits the clinic during protests and stopped there Saturday. He acknowledged a video that shows him in a heated argument with demonstrators standing outside the site.

“You guys are in clear violation. I saw that,” Conway shouts at demonstrators in the video. “You are sitting here, violating the law.”

“Relax,” shouts the filming demonstrator, who is holding a Bible. “I am not sitting, I am preaching the Gospel.”

Conway said Tuesday that before the video began, “numerous” protesters rushed and “got in the faces” of patients arriving at the clinic. Clinic escorts had tried to reason with the demonstrators, who were violating city rules designed to create a protest bubble outside of medical facilities, he added.

“Perhaps I could have handled this in a better way,” he said. “But after I saw the running at women, multiple times, blaring amplifiers in their face at least three or four times, I frankly stood up for the patients until the police arrived. And, you know, I don’t apologize for that. I’ll always stand up for women’s right to access health care.”

The downtown alderman said he expects the ordinance to comfortably pass in the City Council. If it does, police will be able to ticket people who use noise-making devices like amplifiers, bullhorns and percussion instruments after signs are installed, Conway said.

“I am looking to find a way if we can actually confiscate the (amplification) device as well, but that’s not something we have taken up yet,” he said.