CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Access ways will have to be kept clear for people entering health care facilities in Charleston under a proposed ordinance that was pending Wednesday in front of Charleston City Council’s Ordinance and Rules Committee.
Caitlin Cook, a Charleston council member at-large, introduced the measure at the request of Charleston Police Chief Opie Smith in coordination with Charleston City Attorney Kevin Baker.
“The good thing about this bill is that is ensures privacy and access to health care facilities while maintaining that voices are heard in the Capital City,” Cook told 580-WCHS.
“This bill does not want to stifle anybody’s First Amendment rights.”
As proposed, a person who “knowingly obstructs, detains, hinders, impedes, or blocks another person’s entry to or exit from a health care facility or a health care facility’s dedicated parking facility” would be guilty of a misdemeanor.
Conviction would come with fines of up to $500 or as long as 30 days in jail.
Also, a person could be charged with a misdemeanor and jailed for 30 days or fined up to $500 for approaching a person entering a health care facility without consent.
That part of the ordinance reads as follows:
“No person shall knowingly approach another person within eight feet of such person, unless such other person consents, for the purpose of passing a leaflet or handbill to, displaying a sign to, or engaging in oral protest, education, or counseling with such other person in the public right-of-way or sidewalk area within a radius of 100 feet from any entrance door to a health care facility.”
Cook said the ordinance was carefully written drawing from language that has previously been upheld in courts.
“It maintains a balance of First Amendment rights and privacy all while ensuring public safety in the Capital City,” she said. “It’s going to give our police tools to do the jobs that they need to do.”
A health care facility is defined in the ordinance as any entity operating in Charleston that is licensed, certified or otherwise authorized or permitted by law to administer health care services, medical treatment or behavioral or mental health services.
That would include the Women’s Health Center on Charleston’s West Side which offers a list of health services and procedures that include abortions and is often a target site for protesters.
“They have had to call CPD multiple times where patients have been blocked from entering that facility that provides health care to low and moderate income women that, in many instances, would not be able to get that health care any other place,” Cook said.
“People need to be safe and their privacy needs to be maintained when getting medical treatment.”
Cook sits on the Charleston Ordinance and Rules Committee which was scheduled to meet at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday. Chief Smith was among those expected to attend.
Final approval for the ordinance would be up to the full Charleston City Council.