Pro-Lifers Ask Supreme Court To Address NY Sidewalk Counseling Ban

As First Amendment battles continue across America, the pro-life community seeks relief at the nation’s highest court. At its core is a Westchester County, New York, ordinance viewed by many as a thinly veiled assault on free speech.

On July 21, Debra Vitagliano, a dedicated Catholic and occupational therapist for children with special needs, petitioned the Supreme Court in Vitagliano v. Westchester County. The lawsuit challenges a county ordinance passed in 2022 that effectively bans a person from engaging in oral protests, education, or counseling on abortion within an 8-foot radius of another person (without their explicit consent) if they’re within 100 feet of an abortion facility.

Vitagliano’s mission to offer face-to-face counseling outside a Westchester abortion clinic now carries the weight of potential criminal misdemeanor charges. Joseph Davis of Becket Law, Vitagliano’s attorney, stated, “Westchester County doesn’t want women to know about other options” than abortion. Davis emphasized the troubling nature of the ordinance, noting that it prevents even a “peaceful conversation” within the specified distance.

This legislation followed the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, effectively overturning an alleged constitutional “right” to abortion. Ironically, before this decision, Westchester had seen no need for any “bubble zones” or spaces where free speech is restricted.

While many argue the ordinance replicates a previous law upheld in the 2000 Supreme Court case Hill v. Colorado, Davis and his team believe changes in the law undermine the continuing validity of that ruling. The Hill decision had curiously permitted restrictions on approaching individuals near abortion clinics. Justice Antonin Scalia had, at that time, strongly dissented. Fast forward to today, and the court’s language in Dobbs suggests previous rulings, including Hill, had “distorted First Amendment doctrines.”

Sensing legal vulnerability, the county convened on August 1 to discuss amendments, eventually repealing the 8-foot restriction by a vote of 13-3 on August 7. Yet, for Vitagliano, the repeal doesn’t erase over a year of curbed speech. As Davis eloquently stated, “When you’re in public, people have the presumptive right to talk to you.”

But the broader story is the nationwide assault on free speech, particularly near abortion facilities. Cities like Carbondale, Illinois, established “abortion destinations” post-Dobbs, and have passed analogous ordinances. Beyond American shores, the United Kingdom recently instituted a 150-meter buffer zone around abortion facilities, alarmingly banning even silent prayers.

Mark Rienzi, president and CEO at Becket, stressed the ordinance’s broader implications, stating, “People don’t have abortions because they think abortion is awesome.” Instead, they often feel isolated, without options or support.

For Rienzi, Vitagliano’s appeal is not about creating chaos but re-establishing fundamental rights, noting, “No one’s looking for the right to block or tackle somebody. But we are looking for the right to speak peacefully.”