Inside the First Amendment - Protests over the protests at clinics that perform abortions

  • Written by Gene Policinski

  Few topics in modern life have produced as much rancorous and visible public debate as abortion — and one hot point of contention today is simply how close that debate may take place to the clinics that perform them.
  The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday over a challenge to a Massachusetts state law, in McCullen v. Coakley, that creates a fixed, 35-foot “buffer zone” around the entrance or driveways of such clinics, forbidding protesters and others from entering the zone, with the exception of women seeking medical services, workers at the clinic, police and those merely walking to somewhere else.
  The law at issue is rooted, its advocates say, in years of conflicts around such clinics in which protesters battle — verbally and sometimes more — and where women are harassed or even blocked as they attempt to enter. They argue that both pro- and anti-abortion demonstrators still can state their views, just not in proximity that’s likely to intimidate anyone.
  On Wednesday, Justice Elena Kagan questioned the size of the Massachusetts zone, saying she was “a little hung up on why you need so much space.” Justice Antonin Scalia remarked that rather than bar all speech in the 35-foot zone, perhaps just a ban on swearing and screaming could be used.
  But those in opposition to the law being challenged say that, as applied, it illegally targets only the speech of anti-abortion forces, and creates a constitutional conundrum in which listeners’ rights are favored over those of speakers, while offering no reasonable alternative for anti-abortion groups to effectively deliver their message. On Wednesday, justices also noted that not all those at clinics to oppose abortion are protesting: Many are there to offer a calm presentation of their views.
  Similar arguments were raised over a Colorado buffer zone law upheld by the Court in 2000, in Hill v. Colorado — its last major ruling on the issue. The Colorado statute set out a 100-foot area around health care facilities, and forbade anti-abortion protesters inside such areas from coming closer than eight feet to anyone for the purpose of counseling or protesting — a so-called “floating buffer zone.”
  A 1994 federal law forbids violent actions, obstruction, interference and intimidation outside abortion clinics — in other words, it governs conduct, not the message. Challengers to both the Colorado and Massachusetts laws say those more-restrictive state statutes have it the wrong way around, targeting just anti-abortion speech, while those supporting abortion rights are free to move within the zones and to speak to women as they enter and leave clinics.
  Generally, the First Amendment precludes government from considering “content” or “viewpoint” when regulating speech. Massachusetts officials say a history at such clinics of confrontation and violence justifies overriding that general limitation, in the name of public safety.
  There are other significant First Amendment issues raised in this case and in the earlier Hill decision, including a proper balancing of what some call “a right to be let alone” vs. free speech rights of speakers on sensitive or even offensive matters.
  The essential point of laws banning protests near such clinics is to shelter women seeking information or abortions from the emotional distress produced by often-graphic language, signs, handouts and “in-your-face” tactics used by anti-abortion forces, who see such actions as the final opportunity to reverse a decision to end a pregnancy.
  And the equally basic First Amendment question raised is whether protection of “vigorous public debate” over significant issues in our society can be muzzled because of the undeniable distress it causes some women who hear — or are challenged by — that debate.
  A clue as to how the Court may view McCullen may be found in a 2011 ruling in which emotional distress to the listener also was a core issue, involving protesters at a funeral service for a U.S. Marine killed in the line of duty. In that case, Snyder v. Phelps, the father of the fallen Marine sued a group known as the Westboro Baptist Church over its virulently anti-gay signs and visible picketing at his son’s funeral.
  In an 8-1 decision, the court upheld the Westboro group’s right to protest and to use the most-effective place and manner of free speech, as long as it did not physically disrupt the services, and even if it caused pain to the Snyder family.
  “The principle (is) that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open,” Chief Justice John Roberts said in the majority opinion. “The First Amendment protects our right to express ourselves, and the depths of our opinions and emotions, in the most strident terms,” he wrote. “Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and — as it did here — inflict great pain ... (but) we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a nation we have chosen a different course, to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate.”
  Nothing about the national debate over abortion is simple — and that applies at times to even the words and manner we use in talking about it.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Guest View - It’s sad a former friend goes on attack

  • Written by Steve Radice

  The following is a commentary in response to former Oak Lawn Mayor Dave Heilmann’s Guest View from last Thursday.

  It’s clear to me our former mayor is still having trouble dealing with his defeat in last April’s election, and after I read his (commentary), I first decided to ignore it and concentrate on more important things like my family and my job. But after my 15-year old son read it and asked “How can someone be allowed to write lies like this?” I realized I needed to respond.

  To begin, I have lived in Oak Lawn’s 3rd District for more than 20 years. I raised my family here and have been active in our community for the majority of that time, because I love Oak Lawn and I want our Village to thrive.
  In 2007 my trustee, Bob Streit, asked me to serve on the Village’s Planning & Development Committee which I happily agreed to do. I served for six years, the last two as Chairman, in October 2012 the Village posted a help-wanted notice for part-time property maintenance inspector position. This was something I thought I could do and be good at given my experience on the P&DC. I submitted my resume, interviewed, and was offered the part-time position, which pays $18 hour, provides no insurance benefits, and doesn’t qualify for a pension.
  Prior to taking the job I asked if there might be a conflict of interest if I remained on the P&D Commission, and the attorneys thought it might, so on October 15, 2012, before my term was up, I submitted my resignation letter from the P&D Commission to the Village Manager and Board — including then-Mayor Dave Heilmann.
  Afterward, Trustee Streit called me to say he was unhappy with my decision but understood and respected it. He thanked me for my six years of service and said he was proud of the work I did, and so did several other board members, the village manager, and my fellow commission members. In fact, the village manager asked me to help train the new commissioner replacing me, which I was happy to do.
  Compare those facts to the slanderous lie Dave Heilmann wrote about me…that I was “not re-appointed to the P&D Committee because Heilmann received complaints about my independence.” He provides no proof or documentation, because none exists, and neither he nor any other Village official ever told me about any complaints, not while I was on the P&D Committee, and not any time after.
  In fact, the only real disagreement I ever had with Dave Heilmann was over Christ Hospital’s $500 million expansion. Heilmann thought the hospital should get a free pass on construction fees, permit fees, and other payments that could have amounted to almost $7 million for Oak Lawn residents. These are fees that every other business and resident in Oak Lawn pays, and that Advocate Christ routinely pays and expects to pay in ALL the other towns where they have hospitals.
  For some reason Heilmann thought Oak Lawn should be different, that we shouldn’t “penalize” the hospital, regardless of how their half-billion-dollar project might affect our Village. Maybe it had something to do with Mr. Heilmann’s law firm (from their website) representing some of Chicago-areas biggest hospitals and hospital groups? Or maybe because Christ Hospital honored Heilmann as their “2012 Man of the Year,” complete with a black-tie event at a museum in downtown Chicago?
  Whatever his reasons, I disagreed with Heilmann, and so did the majority of our other P&D Commissioners. And Heilmann made it very clear to me that he was very unhappy with my position, so apparently if you disagree with Dave Heilmann, you are not “acting independently.” Which is backwards and hypocritical. Especially when the majority of the village trustees, the village manager, the village clerk, and the village attorney also disagreed with Heilmann, and so did the vast majority of Oak Lawn residents as we saw in last April’s election, where the issue of Christ Hospital paying their “fair share” was the No. 1 issue. Dave Heilmann and his entire slate of candidates lost decidedly, and within weeks Christ Hospital also said they disagreed with Heilmann, when they agreed to pay the Village more than $3 million for their expansion.
  That was the biggest and most obvious lie but it wasn’t the only one.
  I can’t deny that after reading Dave Heilmann’s (commentary) I became very angry and frustrated, but as I began writing my response, that anger and frustration turned to sadness.
  Sadness for a person who, a person who I thought held so much promise for Oak Lawn. We are fellow parishioners at St. Linus parish. I supported Dave when he first ran for Mayor in 2005, and worked on his re-election campaign in 2009. I attended his father’s wake, and sent his wife a get-well card during her illness. And I did all of this not because of politics, but because I considered Dave a friend, which makes his attack on me that much more hurtful.
  It’s one thing to disagree with someone, or even to dislike someone, but it’s something altogether different when you purposely lie about someone and malign their reputation and character to get revenge on your political enemies. And it’s not acceptable. Period.
  Heilmann finished by saying “Sometimes silence screams the truth,” and since he appears to believe that, consider my response the answer to that silence.
  But also consider something else. There is definitely one thing that “screams the truth”, and not just sometimes but always. It’s called the truth.

Radice is the former Oak Lawn Planning & Development commissioner.

The B Side: Here’s a new wrinkle — great customer service

  • Written by Bob Rakow

Bob Rakow for web  A few years ago, I dropped in on the dry cleaners my family had patronized for several years and asked if they could press the dress shirt my son was required to wear at St. Rita High School on the days that Mass was celebrated.
  The shirt was badly wrinkled but also needed to be cleaned. The trouble was, my son needed the shirt the following day, and there was no time for dry cleaning. I asked if it simply could be pressed so it would look presentable. The owner of the dry cleaners flatly refused, saying it had to be cleaned as well.
  I walked out of the business after telling the owner that there were several other dry cleaners in Oak Lawn. I’ve never returned, choosing instead to bring our regular cleaning business to a competitor a few miles away.
  On another occasion, we ordered food for my son’s graduation party from an Oak Lawn restaurant. On the day of the party, I watched a family member place a piece of chicken on his plate that had a bone and deep-fried skin. There was no meat.
  We laughed about it, but it was an embarrassing moment. I complained to the restaurant owner a few days later, but he merely shrugged his shoulders and said there was nothing he could do. I was more than a little surprised, as we routinely ordered dinners and pizzas from the restaurant for years prior to the party.
  I recount these examples of poor customer service after receiving something unexpected in the mail this week.
  Our family Christmas Eve party was catered by Barraco’s Restaurant, which has locations in Evergreen Park, Burbank and Crestwood. I spotted a coupon for their holiday catering offer and decided to give them a try.
  On the night of the party, my wife waited for more than 30 minutes at the restaurant to pick up the food. It was an inconvenience, to be sure, but we quickly forgot about it when the food was served. Fried chicken—with meat on the bone, by the way—mostaccioli, tossed salad and rolls had all of our guests raving and returning to the table for seconds. My son went beyond seconds—always a good gauge for measuring quality food.
  More than one week later, I got a phone call from Barraco’s asking about the holiday order. I told the woman on the phone that the food was great, and then, reluctantly, I mentioned my wife’s long wait. I added that it was understandable because Christmas Eve is a busy night. The woman apologized and told me the owners would be notified. I appreciated the call and forgot about it.
  Then, last week, an envelope arrived from Barraco’s containing a $65 gift certificate. I was more than a little surprised. “Have a meal on us,” the restaurant was saying, “we appreciate your business.” This was a great example of excellent customer service—something that’s become all too infrequent these days.
  Of course, the move makes good business sense as well. There’s no doubt we’ll go back to Barraco’s for future parties or dinner. And, I’m bound to tell people about the gift certificate (as I’m doing in this space), something that can only benefit the restaurant. I look forward to a coming night when we have a meal at Barraco’s.
  Community leaders often remind us to shop local, support area businesses and keep your dollars in town. That’s a good idea. Small business owners rely on us for their success. But we also have the right to good customer service and to vote with our wallets.
  When you’re unhappy with a product or service, tell the proprietor. Ditto when you’ve had a great experience.
  A smart business owner will respond appropriately.
— Bob Rakow is a news reporter for The Reporter

Civility: Let’s try that free speech option

  • Written by Gene Policinski

Inside the First Amendment

The First Amendment protects our freedom to say and write just about anything we want — but that doesn’t mean we ought to, particularly in public life.

The difference rests between “can” and “should.”

Our nation’s founders were no strangers to rude, callous and raucous debate in public life and to vicious commentary, even by today’s “anything goes” online standards. Sex scandals, infidelity, personal weaknesses and even religious differences were exposed, debated and mocked in public life and in the newspapers of the day with personal glee and political purpose.

The self-governing system eventually created for the United States depends on vigorous public involvement and debate, but it also depends on a measure of what we call today “civility” to function. Not civility in the sense of polite nods and watered-down language — that’s not “free speech” in any sense — but rather a thinking response and respect for robust debate over ideas and policies.

The Bill of Rights, led off by the First Amendment, rests on the creative tension of rights and responsibilities. It is civility in its historical meaning — involved, engaged citizenry — that powers those two great civic engines.

A First Amendment advocate should be the last to call for laws or other official limits on speech, such as campus speech codes or restrictions on campaign speech. But Congressional gridlock, growing public disaffection with politics and growing concern about online discussions perpetually locked into the lowest level of comments, require a non-governmental response.

Journalists are a good starting point for self-initiated positive action. A recent gathering of about 40 practitioners, at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., gives hope in that direction.

The group met in early December to talk about incivility in the media, in a multi-day session sponsored by the Newseum Institute, The Poynter Institute for Media Studies and the National Institute for Civil Discourse. A concluding task was to set out some core values for journalists and to face the serious issue of whether this group or any other might actually produce change.

A good starting point for the organizers (Note: I was one of them) was to assemble a group that resembles the nation in 2014: Journalists from traditional media and new media, with great diversity in age groups, ethnicity, location and views.

The values statement stressed truth, independence and transparency as well as focusing on the free press role envisioned by Madison, Jefferson and others: Exposing wrongdoing, airing of multiple points of view, empowering people with information needed for self-governance, and providing the means for the nation to hear from “the disenfranchised and voices that are not being heard.”

Worthy goals all, for a nation that is without doubt increasingly diverse and increasingly divided — and also a good refocusing for a free press battered by falling and fading revenue sources, diminished public respect and the loss of many of its most-veteran participants.

In the mid-1940s, journalists and academics joined in a post-WWII seminar popularly known as the Hutchins Commission to consider the role of journalism in a cynical, war-weary world. According to reports of the time, it was an era in which the public had little respect for the large media enterprises of the day, finding them increasingly uncivil, unconcerned with or unable to perform their “watchdog on government” role — and out of touch with news consumers. Sound familiar?

There is no minimizing the difficulty ahead in reshaping public debate that now focuses on the shrill, in which partisan confrontation often overwhelms nonpartisan compromise. Perhaps journalists are the group of that can first move the idea of “civility” from premise to practice — a New Year resolution with real promise.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

Inside the First Amendment - From a 5th-grader, uncomfortable truth about religious conflict

  • Written by Charles C. Haynes

  When children speak the truth, adults often squirm and shut them up.

  That’s apparently what happened to Zachary Golob-Drake last week after he delivered a speech entitled “In the Name of Religion” to his 5th-grade class at Patel Partnership School in Tampa, Fla.
  The teacher initially applauded Zachary’s speech, awarding him first prize and an opportunity to compete to represent his school at the regional 4-H Tropicana Public Speech Contest.
  But later that same day, school officials had second thoughts.
  An assistant principal took Zachary aside and explained that the speech wasn’t appropriate for 4th- and 5th-graders. As Zachary told WFLA-TV, “She thought that probably I would have to rewrite my speech, take the religion out or not compete.”
  Stripped of his blue ribbon, Zachary was found crying when his older brother came to pick him up at school.
  After family members protested, the school returned the ribbon. But still-worried administrators postponed the school-wide contest until parents signed permission slips allowing their children to hear the speeches.
  What’s the scary, controversial, age-inappropriate content in Zachary’s speech that young children shouldn’t hear without parental consent?
  “The world’s major religions all have messages about coexisting,” he writes. But sometimes people “use religion as an excuse to take each other’s lives.” He cites the Crusades, Genghis Khan, and the terrorist attacks on 9/11 as examples.
  Despite news reports to the contrary, school officials now claim that the “topic of mass murders” and not religion is the issue.
  That’s strange, because Zachary’s short speech isn’t graphic or inflammatory. He merely states the obvious: “Religious differences have always sparked conflict, even leading to warfare and mass murder.”
  If Zachary’s school doesn’t teach young kids (or allow them to discuss) the truth about religious conflict in history, what exactly does it teach?
  I suspect that Zachary’s school, like many public schools, is afraid to touch “religion” with the proverbial ten-foot pole. Even when religion is mentioned in the upper elementary grades — holidays, places of worship, and other basic facts — there is rarely discussion of the role of religion in society, for better and for worse.
  It may be uncomfortable and politically incorrect, but Zachary is saying what 4th and 5th graders need to hear about one of the greatest challenges we face in the 21st century.
  “In the name of religion,” Christians and Muslims are fighting in northern Africa; Sunni and Shiite Muslims are at war in the Middle East; Buddhists are attacking Muslims in Burma; extremists are perverting Islam to justify violence across the globe — and the tragic list goes on.
  As only a child can do, Zachary calls attention to the contradiction between the message of compassion found at the heart of the major world religions and the failure of many adherents to live that message in their relationships with people of other faiths.
  Fortunately, however, little Zachary is smart enough to recognize that there is more to the story — that religion can also be a force for great good in the world.
  Zachary ends his speech by telling us “religion provides moral guidance for most of the seven billion people on the earth.” He quotes the admonition of Confucius: “Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you,” an early version of the Golden Rule found in many of the world’s great faiths.
  “This world would be a better place,” writes Zachary, “if everybody followed that rule.”
  From the mouths of babes comes truth and wisdom.

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20001. Web: Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.