Press-Republican

April 8, 2014

City Council may vote on alternative for vigil location

By FELICIA KRIEG
Press-Republican

---- — PLATTSBURGH — The Plattsburgh City Common Council may officially offer the Bishop’s Apostles for Life a compromise for its Good Friday prayer vigil in front of Planned Parenthood of the North Country Northern New York.

Some councilors are suggesting the group use three parking spaces across Brinkerhoff Street from the clinic instead of immediately in front of it.

Speaking for the Roman Catholic group, Dr. John Middleton said its members now plan to stand on the grassy median between the sidewalk and the street in front of Planned Parenthood, which is public property, instead of using the three parking spaces they had originally requested.

‘FREE-SPEECH ISSUE’

The possible compromise on the part of the council follows a 4-2 vote at the March 13 council session that denied Apostles for Life’s annual request to gather in the three parking spaces in front of Planned Parenthood from 10 to 11 a.m. April 18.

The latest discussion, at the April 3 Common Council meeting, ensued after Mayor James Calnon and City Corporation Counsel John Clute emailed the councilors, asking them to reconsider their decision.

Contacted by the Press-Republican, Calnon said that some of the rationales the dissenting councilors provided on the day of the vote were not as “firmly supported” as he would have liked them to be.

“What I was trying to present to them (in the email) was a case for total objectivity and in the course of that said, ‘Here’s some things that would really make your blood boil, and would you be objective then?’” Calnon said. 

“This is nothing but a free-speech issue.”

On March 13, Councilor Rachelle Armstrong (D-Ward 1) and Becky Kasper (D-Ward 5) had suggested the vigil would disrupt business and take up valuable parking spaces in the downtown area.

Armstrong, Kasper, Josh Kretser (D-Ward 6) and Michael Kelly (D-Ward 2) voted against allowing the Apostles prayer event.

At that same meeting, the council OK’d a Take Back the Night march through city streets proposed by the SUNY Plattsburgh Center for Womyn’s Concerns. Kasper, Armstrong and Kretser said then that they would be in favor of the Apostles conducting a similar event.

‘CONFUSION’

“Both the mayor and Mr. (John) Clute have assumed that the dissenting counselors objected to the vigil because they objected to the content of the vigil’s prayers,” Armstrong said at the April 3 work session, adding that was not the case.

“This is not an issue for me on my personal stance on abortion rights,” Kasper said. “For me, this is strictly about whether people are entitled to free access to services (that are legal).

“Free speech ought not to impede the ability of people to procure legal services.”

It was Armstrong who first initiated efforts after the March 13 seeking a compromise.

She said Calnon and Clute’s emails confused her, as she had already discussed an alternative plan — for the Apostles to use parking spaces across the street — with the mayor in the days immediately following the March 13 vote.

She said she would be asking that a vote on the compromise be added to the agenda for this Thursday’s meeting.

‘LEGAL ISSUE’

But Middleton told the Press-Republican that he doesn’t feel the alternative is feasible because of insurance restrictions.

While the policy does not specify which three spaces must be used for the vigil, Middleton said, switching the location of the spaces is not a risk he is willing to take.

After discussing the compromise with Armstrong, Middleton met with Calnon and showed him the insurance policy.

“I’m not sure that that’s a barrier,” the mayor told the Press-Republican, adding that the policy didn’t seem to specify which three parking spaces were covered.

‘RIGHTS OF PATRONS’

Armstrong said Calnon and Clute’s emails addressed only the free-speech rights of the prayer-vigil participants and not the rights of patrons of Planned Parenthood to seek services without interference.

“The proximity of the prayer vigil to business traffic interferes in the freedom of those patrons to come and go without being confronted by the unsolicited messages conveyed by those praying,” Armstrong said. 

“Do Northern Adirondack Planned Parenthood patrons not have the right to seek services without confrontation, no matter what form this may take?

“Would we allow protesters to stand in front of Irises (Cafe & Wine Bar) and offer prayers on behalf of the animals who die to feed the patrons who go to Irises? I feel that’s a perfectly analogous situation,” she said, adding it could possibly be considered an “impediment to commerce.”

RESTRICTIONS ALLOWABLE

Clute said the council’s vote shouldn’t raise any legal issues.

“Government has the right to regulate speech activities as to the time, manner and place of speech so long as they do so reasonably.”

The attorney pointed to a request to protest homosexuality in Trinity Park made by Westboro Baptist Church and Pastor Fred Phelps almost 10 years ago.

The council voted to permit the group to protest across the street.

“We didn’t agree to anything, but we said if you want to protest, this is where you protest,” Clute said.

‘STILL FOR IT’

At the March 13 vote on the Apostles for Life request, Councilor Paul “Crusher” O’Connell (D-Ward 6) and Councilor Dale Dowdle (R-Ward 3) voted in favor of the Apostles for Life request.

“They’ve never had a problem in the past, and I’m still for it,” O’Connell said at the April 3 meeting, adding that people protest weekly outside Planned Parenthood. 

“I couldn’t understand why we couldn’t allow them to stay for an hour.”

Kelly suggested that since the Apostles for Life is a religious organization, its members could protest outside a church, such as St. John’s or St. Peter’s.

“Both of those places have really wide sidewalks and lawns so they would be safe for many, many people to gather,” Kelly said.

But the Apostles for Life message hinges on the location of the vigil and the intent of the prayers, Middleton said.

“That’s the same reason bank robbers rob banks. That’s where the abortions take place.”

‘SIMPLY A VIGIL’

Kasper said her concern about demonstrations outside Planned Parenthood has only increased since the vote.

She said at least six people who act as volunteer escorts at the clinic told her of incidents where patrons trying to enter the building were met with obscenities, pamphlets being thrown at them and, at times, were physically touched by demonstrators.

One person told her he had reported one of these incidents to the Plattsburgh City Police, she said.

O’Connell suggested the council get a record of the complaint if they were to further examine the issue.

While Middleton hasn’t been at every demonstration or prayer vigil in front of Planned Parenthood, he said he hasn’t seen any of that kind of behavior in the 43 years he has been a part of the local pro-life movement.

“I don’t believe any harassment has occurred in our history,” Middleton said. “We don’t believe in that. We’re simply doing a prayer vigil, and we don’t whoop and holler and disturb anybody.”

Kasper said, “Whatever we decide, if this comes forward to the council again, I think we’ll have to insist that we have a greater awareness of what’s going on.”

Email Felicia Krieg:fkrieg@pressrepublican.comTwitter: @FeliciaKrieg