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The Walnut Creek City Council has unanimously endorsed a buffer area protecting employees and clients of Planned Parenthood from harassment by anti-abortion protesters outside the clinic.

Walnut Creek police received 42 calls for service at the Planned Parenthood facility on Oakland Boulevard between Jan. 1, 2020, and Nov. 5, 2021. Complaints included accusations of verbal and physical harassment and intimidation of patients and protestors blocking sidewalks.

Council members said they realized it was a matter of dueling rights: those of protesters exercising their right of free speech, versus the legally protected rights of people not to be harassed while seeking medical attention at the clinic. California law guarantees a person’s right to enter a health care facility without obstruction, including for abortions.

“I’m concerned with the 42 calls for service over a 21-month period; that’s unacceptable to me. Some of those calls for service involved physical assaults or altercations. That’s also unacceptable to me.”

Mayor Matt Francois

Council members at their Tuesday meeting also said it came down to safety and that the Supreme Court has already upheld similar bans in other cities.

“I’m concerned with the 42 calls for service over a 21-month period; that’s unacceptable to me,” said Mayor Matt Francois. “Some of those calls for service involved physical assaults or altercations. That’s also unacceptable to me.

“I think that there needs to be clearer lines drawn here, and the buffer ordinance seems to draw those lines in a way that’s clear, for both those exercising their First Amendment rights and for those accessing the clinic and for law enforcement,” Francois said.

Dozens of people on both sides spoke on the issue, which came before the council Nov. 16 but had to be postponed because of technical difficulties for speakers commenting via Zoom.

The city has also received reports of traffic accidents in the area related to distracted driving from pedestrians in the street. At least four people have been arrested, one for going inside the clinic and threatening people. A security guard for pro-life group 40 Days for Life was arrested for allegedly pepper spraying people during a protest.

Other options presented to the council, such as installing a gate at the entrance and increasing police patrols in the area, were rejected as either not being realistic or taking officers away from other areas where they are needed.

Tuesday’s vote officially directed staff to prepare the ordinance, which will come back to the council for final approval.