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County proposal would ban protests at homes

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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

Two Bernalillo County commissioners plan to propose an ordinance that would ban picketing outside a person’s home, matching a rule already in place within Albuquerque city limits.

The proposal from Maggie Hart Stebbins and Debbie O’Malley would expand the city’s prohibition to the unincorporated areas of Bernalillo County, where a recent anti-abortion protest was held outside the North Valley home of a doctor.

“The United States Supreme Court has found that freedom from harassment in your own home is a reasonable expectation, and that decision allows local governments to limit protests in residential neighborhoods,” Hart Stebbins said Tuesday in an interview.

Albuquerque is embroiled in a debate over abortion because of a petition drive to prohibit the procedure after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

Disclosure of the county proposal came the same day abortion-rights advocates denounced the aggressive tactics used by “Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust,” a California-based group that had a hand in protests in Albuquerque earlier this month.

Members of the “Survivors” group held a protest outside the home of a doctor, whose work as an “abortionist” they denounced through megaphones.

The doctor wasn’t home, and friends say the protest terrified his family.

Members of the group also visited the New Mexico Holocaust and Intolerance Museum and called for a panel on abortion, equating the number of abortions in the United States to the millions of people killed by Nazis.

Abortion-rights groups and others gathered Tuesday on Civic Plaza – organizers estimated 200 to 300 people attended – where they described the visit to the house as bullying and urged people to support abortion rights. Some people held signs saying they feared anti-abortion groups would incite violence.

Michelle Racicot, a family nurse practitioner and former Army captain, said at the rally that anti-abortion protesters had engaged in the same “scare tactics” she saw in Afghanistan and Iraq involving “intimidation, fear and harassment.”

Kristina Garza, a member of the “Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust” group, later told the Journal that the group advocates only through “peaceful protests” and would never advocate violence. Allegations otherwise are “absolutely false,” she said.

Furthermore, Garza said, protests should be allowed in residential areas.

Freedom of speech “is a constitutional right,” Garza said. “It will be interesting to see what the language of this law is and if, in fact, it’s constitutional.”

Abortion-rights supporters say the fear of violence is legitimate. A Kansas doctor was murdered in 2009 by an anti-abortion fanatic, and a former colleague of that doctor now works in Albuquerque.

Albuquerque is embroiled in an abortion debate because of a petition drive launched this summer to propose an ordinance that would ban abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, with narrow exceptions for when the life of the pregnant woman is in danger.

Organizers of the petition drive say the “Survivors” group from California wasn’t involved in the local petition drive.

Hart Stebbins said she and O’Malley will introduce their proposal at next week’s County Commission meeting. Final action could come in October.

The proposal will be modeled on the city’s ordinance, Hart Stebbins said.

It would make it illegal to do any “picketing focused on and taking place in front of or next to a particular residence, without the express prior consent of the occupant(s).”

Micah McCoy, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico, said the “ACLU always has concerns when speech rights are curtailed,” but said “the Supreme Court has ruled that an ordinance such as that proposed by Commissioner Stebbins – and like the one in Albuquerque – is constitutional.”

The City Clerk’s Office is still verifying whether petition drive organizers have gathered enough valid signatures to trigger an election, but a deadline has passed to get the question on the Oct. 8 ballot. Instead, the issue could go to voters in November.

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