Local anti-abortion groups are considering filing suit after the Charlotte City Council voted to limit amplified sounds outside medical facilities, such as a heavily-protested women's clinic in east Charlotte.
The new rules, approved in a contentious 8-3 vote on Monday, ban all amplified and "unreasonably loud" noises within 150 feet of schools, houses of worship and medical facilities during hours of operation.
That would include megaphones, loudspeakers and bullhorns — all of which are frequently employed by anti-abortion groups outside A Preferred Women's Health Clinic on Latrobe Drive.
Representatives for Cities4Life Charlotte and Love Life Charlotte say the new rules unfairly target their daily and weekly demonstrations outside the clinic and may even violate their First Amendment right to free speech.
"We're the only people that are consistently, on a regular basis, using amplified sound in a context like that, so we're the only people that are going to be affected," said Daniel Parks, executive director of Cities4Life Charlotte. "It is a biased application of an ordinance in order to supress our First Amendment rights."
Reached by telephone, Justin Reeder, founder of Love Life, echoed Parks' comments, adding that he worried how the city might define "unreasonably loud."
"Is that a hundred people singing 'Amazing Grace' a capella with no amplified sound? Will people be written up for that? We're not sure," he said.
Both Parks and Reeder say they are strongly considering filing legal challenges against the city in an effort to get the restrictions revoked.
"We're Not Here To Regulate Religion"
At Monday night's meeting, some City Council members pushed back against the assertion they were targeting anti-abortion groups by amending the noise ordinance.
Democratic Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt said the city had received 9,700 noise complaints this year, with 483 from medical facilities, 653 from schools, and 57 from houses of worship, The Charlotte Observer reported.
"We're not here to regulate religion. We're not here to regulate morality. We are here to keep the peace in the city and to assure quality of life in a city that is growing very quickly," Eiselt said.
Other council members, however, showed skepticism. Republican Ed Driggs accused fellow council members of "trying to circumvent the controversy" by passing the restrictions as part of a broader ordinance update.
Driggs was one of three council members to vote against the change. Other "no" votes came from Republican Tariq Bokhari and Democrat Greg Phipps.
"I Expect That It Will Be Challenged"
In an interview with WFAE, City Attorney Patrick Baker said he was already preparing for a legal challenge from anti-abortion groups, and had advised City Council members to expect a lawsuit if the new rules were passed.
"I expect that they will try to argue that our ordinance is really content-based and directed toward squelching their speech, as opposed to being content neutral," he said.
But the city would argue that the ordinance does not discriminate based on the content or nature of the speech, only its decibel level.
"It's not what comes out of the megaphone," Baker said, noting that protesters could still pray in silence or speak their message without amplification. Activists would also still be allowed to occupy the public sidewalk in front of the Latrobe Drive clinic.
The U.S. Supreme Court has previously found no-standing, no-talking buffer zones outside health clinics are a violation the First Amendment but has signaled that local governments may be able to impose less-restrictive buffer zones that allow the continued presence of anti-abortion protests and viewpoints.
Barring any legal injunctions, Charlotte's new restrictions will go into effect on Oct. 1, and Baker said the city will use the coming months to help educate residents on the new rules and develop enforcement plans.
Baker said he's happy to meet and speak with residents who have additional questions about the ordinance.