Free speech vs right to abortion forcing city to address safety concerns outside abortion clinic

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Latrobe Drive in Charlotte is a tale of two streets - depending on what day of the week it is.

Preferred Women's Health Center is on Latrobe Drive. For the most part,  it's quiet on the street during the week. But clinic workers say it's a different story on Saturdays when anti-abortion protesters gather outside the health center.

"Going to receive abortion care on a Saturday is like driving through a circus," said Calla Hales, an Administrator at the Preferred Women's Health Center. "We have protests starting at 7 in the morning all the way to about 2 in the afternoon and 9:30 to 11 that activity amps up."

Hales says the protesting has been "aggressively escalating" for more than a year.

"This issue is a public safety issue," she said. "The idea of large amounts of protesters and signage and large vehicles blocking traffic. It's an ongoing issue."

Thursday afternoon, Charlotte City Council's Community Safety Community took up the issue as city officials try to come up with a solution.

Mayor Jennifer Roberts says she believes it's a safety issue on Latrobe Drive.

"It is safety. It is the safety of the people who are traveling down the street," Mayor Roberts said." I'm concerned about safety of protesters. I'm concerned of safety of clients. I'm concerned about the safety of people passing through."

The Mayor added, "Any business deserves to have safe access to that business if you're on a public street. There's got to be a way that we can figure out how to allow the clinic and other businesses on Latrobe that are impacted by what's going on there just to have access to that place of business."

"My thing has been traffic this whole time," said Council Member Julie Eiselt. "I've driven down there and almost hit somebody when they jumped out in front of the car. These are issues we're dealing with all over the city."

City Attorney Bob Hagemann says first need to identify the problem they're trying to solve.

He says the city has ordinances in place to regulate loud noises and where people can gather without blocking access.

Should the city consider additional measures, such as buffer zones? Should they ban parking on Latrobe?

"Does what we consider doing solve the problem and can we defend what we do on legitimate policy grounds," Hagemann said.

The city attorney says council members have to be very careful not to interfere with protesters' right to free speech.

"If – not if – when the lawsuit comes, we have to be able to defend our decision on non-speech related grounds. We need to have a sound basis for the decision," Hagemann said.

"We take people's first amendment rights very seriously," councilmember Julie Eiselt said. "It isn't our job as city government to get into those issues but it is our job to protect people and both sides have to de-escalate and the only way that's going to happen is we make sure people in those streets are being safe."
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