Abortion Clinic Buffer Zone Gets U.S. High Court Review

Protesting at an Abortion Clinic
A file photo shows a protester standing near a Planned Parenthood center on March 1, 2006 in Boston, Massachusetts. Photographer: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The U.S. Supreme Court accepted a case that promises to redefine the speech rights of abortion opponents, agreeing to rule on a Massachusetts law that creates a 35-foot buffer zone around clinic entrances.

The justices today said they will hear an appeal from abortion foes seeking to overturn the Massachusetts law as a violation of the First Amendment. The challengers say they have a right to hand out leaflets and start conversations with women entering abortion clinics.

A Boston-based federal appeals court upheld the measure, pointing to a 2000 Supreme Court decision that upheld Colorado restrictions on abortion clinic protests.

Massachusetts enacted the law in 2007, strengthening an existing measure that had required a 6-foot buffer zone at abortion clinics. The new law makes it a crime to “knowingly enter or remain” in an area within 35 feet of a clinic entrance, exit or driveway. The measure exempts clinic employees and people entering or leaving the facility.

The high court’s membership has changed significantly since the 2000 decision. Most notably, two members of that 6-3 majority, Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, are no longer on the court. Their successors, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, are often sympathetic to free-speech claims.

“People seeking health services should be able to do so without fear of violence, harassment or intimidation,” Martha Walz, president of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, said in an e-mailed statement. The organization said it has facilities in Springfield, Worcester and Boston.

The Life Legal Defense Foundation, a Napa, California-based group that filed court papers backing the challenge to the Massachusetts law, said in a statement that the statute “severely restricts the free speech of pro-life advocates.”

The justices will hear arguments and rule in their 2013-14 term, which starts in October.

The case is McCullen v. Coakley, 12-1168.

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