Why Salt Lake City is poised to restrict protests near medical centers

COVID-19 gave rise to rallies that triggered concerns about noise and patient privacy.

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Protesters rally in 2017 outside the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City. A proposed Salt Lake City ordinance would limit demonstrations near health care facilities.

Salt Lake City soon may restrict protests in front of medical facilities in a move that officials say is geared at protecting patient privacy.

In an ordinance proposal presented Tuesday to the City Council, city policy adviser Weston Clark said health care facilities have been the target of demonstrations over the past few years.

Those rallies, he said, have disturbed the peace, affected neighbors, interfered with businesses and invaded patient privacy.

“This ordinance strikes a balance between protecting the demonstrators’ First Amendment rights to free expression,” Clark told council members, “and the rights of individuals to access health care without being obstructed, as well as the rights of adjacent businesses and residents to operate and reside in peace.”

If adopted, the ordinance would ban demonstrations within 15 feet of a health care facility’s entrance, prohibit unreasonably loud noises within 30 feet of a facility after being ordered to stop or turn down the volume, and ban the use of sound amplification devices within 50 feet of such facilities.

It also would give patients the right to keep at least 10 feet of space between themselves and a protester if they indicate that they do not want to speak.

The city argues it has a legitimate interest in protecting residents from fear of violence and harassment, and unwelcome noise that would interfere with medical care. The distances in the proposed ordinance reflect those that have been upheld by courts elsewhere.

Clark did not say what exactly led to the drafting of the ordinance, but Cindy Gust-Jenson, executive director of the City Council’s office, said the city has heard concerns from people about pandemic-related demonstrations.

Views about COVID-19 and government restrictions, she said during the meeting, have “brought a little chaos in some cases to hospital settings and the like.”

The city has also heard concerns about well-intentioned demonstrations, like those that showed support for front-line workers.

“That’s something difficult to walk into,” she said, “if you’ve just lost a loved one.”

Salt Lake City police Chief Mike Brown said officers would have discretion in enforcing the ordinance, including giving warnings, issuing citations and taking violators to jail. He said he hopes explaining the ordinance to demonstrators would result in voluntary compliance.

John Mejia, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, said he hasn’t seen the ordinance, but there are circumstances in which laws that restrict First Amendment rights would withstand scrutiny. The government, he said, has a strong interest in protecting those seeking medical care.

“We always have concerns when the government is putting restrictions on First Amendment speech,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean that there are not situations where we would view them as appropriate.”

The ordinance is tentatively scheduled to go to the City Council for a vote Tuesday.