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Gazette-Mail editorial: Protesters have their rights, so do patients

The First Amendment is crucial to the democratic principles of the United States. As a newspaper, we’re pretty fond of it, as just about everything we do is covered in there somewhere.

And yes, those rights certainly extend to peaceable protest, like those that occur outside Trump rallies, inside Sen. Joe Manchin’s local office or in the parking lot of the only clinic in Charleston, or all of West Virginia for that matter, that provides safe, legal abortions.

But that right ends when it begins to infringe upon the rights of others. Patients who go to the Women’s Health Center of West Virginia deserve to be able to seek whatever medical services they choose in relative peace. The Charleston City Council did the right thing by passing an ordinance to try and ensure that is the case.

To be clear, it doesn’t kick protesters off the lot, or ban them from expressing their views. It simply keeps them from blocking the entrance or exit of any health care facility or approaching a person and handing them literature or advice without consent. That seems pretty reasonable. Even Jehovah’s Witnesses who go to private residences will ask if it’s OK before handing someone a pamphlet.

The other requirement is that, if a protester is within 100 feet of an entrance or exit, they may protest, but cannot come within 8 feet of someone to deliver their point.

The ordinance was proposed by first-term Councilwoman Caitlin Cook, after police received reports of patients being harassed by protesters at the Women’s Center of West Virginia. The center’s director told the council the clinic was being overwhelmed by persistent protests by “right-wing fanatics,” most of whom, the director said, are apparently from out of state.

Of course, just because they’re not from West Virginia doesn’t mean they don’t have the right to protest. But the behavior described, specifically accosting patients, getting patients to stop their cars so protesters can yell at them, video recording them and blocking the entrance goes beyond free speech and infringes on a patient’s right to medical privacy. It’s a pretty safe bet those same protesters wouldn’t want to be filmed and jeered while going in to the doctor’s office for a colonoscopy. And now they can’t be. Not in Charleston, anyway.

Of course, this issue is different because, while the ordinance covers all health care facilities, abortion is controversial and has only become more so as states pass laws essentially outlawing the practice, hoping to get a case before the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. That’s a whole other topic for another time.

Anyone going into any medical facility, for whatever reason, should not be made to feel unsafe by hostile protesters. Those protesters should be free to deliver their message, but not in a way that violates another person’s space, security or impedes their path.

There’s nothing more American than someone being able to speak their mind. There’s also nothing more American than a right to medical privacy. This might not solve the issue that it intends to solve — one protester told the council he would not be stopped, which seems ominous — but it’s a solid step toward keeping the peace while not violating anyone’s rights.

Funerals for Friday, July 19, 2019

Cawley Jr., George - 3 p.m., Gatens - Harding Funeral Home, Poca.

Cunningham, Corinna - 11 a.m., Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mt. Lookout.

Evenson, Warren - 2 p.m., Donel C. Kinnard State Veterans Cemetery, Dunbar.

Lawrence, Jerry - 1 p.m., Snodgrass Funeral Home, South Charleston.

Ratliff, Sarah - 2 p.m., Odd Fellow Cemetery, Oak Hill.

Williams, Scott - 11 a.m., Gatens - Harding Funeral Home, Poca.