Charlotte’s abortion wars

In Charlotte’s abortion wars, both sides fight over milliseconds
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In Charlotte’s abortion wars, both sides fight over milliseconds
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Politics & Government

Inside Charlotte’s absurd midnight fight over abortion protests

March 16, 2017 03:25 PM

When two sides often face off at one of Charlotte’s abortion clinics, only one group gets to use a bullhorn.

For that right, they need an amplified noise permit from the city. And for a decade, anti-abortion and pro-abortion rights groups have waged fierce late night battles to get them.

For the last six years, several nights a week, clinic escort Jennifer Vollmer has bombarded the city with emails requesting a noise permit. Starting at 11:52 p.m. each night, she sends the first of 130 emails to the city, all in the hopes one will land in the city’s email inbox at midnight – not a millisecond later.

As Vollmer sends her emails, her opponent, a group called Cities4Life, is doing the same thing, flooding the city with electronic requests for its own noise permit.

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Cities4Life wants the permit so its volunteers can loudly urge women to not have an abortion.

Vollmer’s group, Charlotte Clinic Escorts, and other pro-abortion rights groups like Queen City Clinic Escorts, want the permits to keep Cities4Life from having them.

“It’s crazy. It’s really crazy,” Vollmer said. “This has been going for a really, really long time.”

“Starting at 11, I hit compose, compose, compose,” she said. “Then I attach the request. I open up about 50 windows in my Gmail.”

Pro-abortion rights groups and Cities4Life are fighting over a small piece of public right-of-way on Latrobe Drive, in front of A Preferred Women’s Health of Charlotte.

Some pro-abortion rights groups believe that President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neal Gorsuch, will be hostile to abortion rights. A second Supreme Court nominee by Trump could overturn the 1973 decision of Roe vs. Wade.

With both sides believing change is coming, the confrontations outside the Latrobe Drive clinic have become even more intense, both sides say.

While the visible fight is carried out on the street and sidewalk, the battle begins at night over email.

“They bomb our system,” said Danielle Strayer with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police, who awards the permits. “The pro-life groups are (doing this) every single day, and the pro-choice groups come in waves, and for months at a time they will hit the system just as hard.”

She added: “With just the pro-life group I come in and there are 315 emails a night from them. When the pro-choice group applies too it goes up to 800.”

How does she decide who gets a permit?

“It’s down to the millisecond,” she said. “In Outlook you can time stamp it to the millisecond. It’s whichever hits first.”

Daniel Parks, executive director of Cities4Life Charlotte, said Wednesday the city is working to undermine his group. He’s also outraged that pro-abortion rights groups are trying to get the noise amplification permits even if they don’t intend to use them.

The pro-abortion rights groups, in fact, often don’t use their permits. They just want them to keep Cities4Life for having the legal right to use them in front of the clinic.

“What if I decided that when the gay pride group would do their parade, I would apply for a parade permit in the same place and on the same day,” Parks said. “You know my intention is to not let them have the permit. My intention would be to shut them down.”

The permit is good for a 100-foot radius, meaning no one else can use a microphone or bullhorn within that circle. The noise is capped at 75 decibels from 10 feet away.

City Attorney Bob Hagemann said the city allows only one permit at a time because it doesn’t want people shouting at each other with microphones.

Cities4Life was founded by family members of Concord minister Flip Benham, one of the nation’s leaders in the anti-abortion movement. More recently, Benham has frequently appeared at City Council meetings, assailing the city for approving legal protections for the LGBT community last year. That led to the General Assembly passing House Bill 2.

Protest scene

On Wednesday morning, Cities4Life had a small group on the sidewalk outside the clinic. His group had won the amplified noise permit for that morning, and volunteers used it to encourage women entering the clinic or inside the clinic not to have an abortion.

In front of the clinic, the group parked a large RV, which offers free ultrasounds to women and discourages them from having an abortion. Some volunteers carried large posters with photos of aborted fetuses.

“This is an abortion destination for the entire Southeast,” Parks said, pointing to the clinic.

Standing in the door of the clinic were two volunteers wearing bright pink vests. They have a multicolored umbrella to shield people who want privacy when they enter.

On Saturday mornings, crowds grow.

“I have been reaching out continually since last fall on ways we can create a safer environment – for protesters, clinic volunteers and patients,” said Calla Hales, an administrator with A Preferred Women’s Health Center. “I don’t want to infringe on anyone’s constitutional rights. But my issue is when they infringe on the ability for people to receive health care safely.”

The city of Charlotte does not have any ordinance that creates a “buffer zone” around abortion clinics.

Protesters can’t be on private property without permission, and they can’t protest in the right-of-way to target a private residence. They also can’t block or interfere with pedestrians or vehicles.

As the Latrobe Drive protests have become more intense, they have attracted the attention of City Council member Julie Eiselt, who said she wants to ensure women can safely access the clinic.

Eiselt said she recently visited the clinic to ensure woman have access to a “legal health service.”

Parks of Cities4Life Charlotte said the city is working to undermine his group.

He said the city’s code enforcement officers have asked about the size of his protesters’ signs, which he said is intimidation.

The city said code enforcement has spoken with protesters on both sides of the issue. Officials told protesters that a person can hold a handheld sign in the right-of-way, but they can’t place a sign against a parked car or lean the sign against their body. They also can’t place the sign in the right-of-way.

Parks said he also believes the city wants to put up new “No Parking” signs on Latrobe Drive, which wouldn’t allow him to park the ultrasound RV in front of the clinic.

“This of course would be clearly targeting and singling out our group and obviously intended to thwart our efforts,” Parks wrote in an email to Eiselt, whom he accused of supporting the “abortion industry.” “That would make it impossible for us to park the very effective and helpful mobile ultrasound units where they are most needed.”

The Charlotte Department of Transportation said the police are concerned there is a safety issue on Latrobe Drive, with too many parked cars in front of the clinic. CDOT said it’s studying whether no parking signs should be added.

Eiselt said she has asked city manager Marcus Jones to review whether there is a better way to issue noise amplification permits.

A right to regulate noise

David Hudson, a Vanderbilt law professor and First Amendment expert, said cities have the right to regulate noise, as Charlotte does.

“If the city is applying the same principles to both sides, if they treat them the same, that solves a lot of problems,” he said.

Vollmer, a clinic escort, said she has been sending emails for six years. She said pro-abortion rights and anti-abortion groups used to win the noise amplification permits equally, but in recent years groups like Cities4Life are getting them the majority of the time.

She said she believes Cities4Life has an automatic computer program so their emails arrive exactly at midnight.

Hales said A Preferred Women’s Health Center has made more than 3,000 applications for noise permits since April and only received a few.

When asked whether Cities4Life has software to give the group an edge, Parks only said, “We trust the Lord and we trust his ways.”

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs