Abortion-Clinic Buffer Zone Struck Down by Top U.S. Court

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts law creating a 35-foot protest-free zone around the entrances to abortion clinics, saying it violates the free speech rights of abortion opponents.

The nation’s highest court unanimously said the measure, which prevented people from handing out leaflets and starting conversations with women entering clinics, ran afoul of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment guarantees. The nine justices were divided in their reasoning.

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

The ruling might topple comparable laws in other localities across the U.S., an attorney for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America said in a press tele-conference.

Abortion opponents celebrated the court’s decision.

Writing for five justices, Chief Justice John Roberts called the Massachusetts law an “extreme step” in carrying out the “undeniably significant interests” in maintaining public safety.

Multiple Alternatives

The state “has available to it a variety of approaches that appear capable of serving its interests, without excluding individuals from areas historically open for speech and debate,” Roberts said.

For example, localities can enact laws that require crowds blocking clinic entrances to disperse when ordered to by the police, he wrote.

President Barack Obama’s spokesman, Josh Earnest, told reporters that while the administration filed a brief with the court supporting the Massachusetts law, “we are pleased that their ruling was narrow and that they recognized the possibility of alternative approaches.”

Roger Evans, the Planned Parenthood senior counsel, told reporters that as many as 10 laws might fall in legal challenges inspired by ruling, while less restrictive laws may stand.

It’s fair to expect that buffer zones across the country, regardless of their size, will be challenged as a result of the opinion, he said.

State Legislator

Martha Walz, a former Massachusetts legislator who now leads that state’s Planned Parenthood affiliate, said on the press call that the organization would continue trying to shield women seeking abortions from aggressive protesters.

Joining in Roberts’s opinion were the court’s Democratic appointees, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito said they would go further and rule that the buffer zones are unlawful because they suppress speech that opposes abortion.

The court gives “abortion-rights advocates a pass when it comes to suppressing the free-speech rights of their opponents,” Scalia wrote for himself, Kennedy and Thomas.

Seven abortion opponents, led by Eleanor McCullen, challenged the law. McCullen, a grandmother in her 70s, spends two days a week outside a Boston Planned Parenthood clinic trying to counsel women.

2000 Decision

A Boston-based federal appeals court upheld the Massachusetts law, pointing to a Supreme Court decision in 2000 that upheld Colorado restrictions on abortion clinic protests. The Colorado law barred anyone from getting within eight feet of another person, without consent, to hand out material or engage in a discussion. That law wasn’t directly called into question in today’s ruling.

Massachusetts said its law was a response to years of violence at and near abortion clinics, including a 1994 shooting that killed two people. The abortion opponents said the state has no evidence of recent problems, arguing that Massachusetts hasn’t prosecuted anyone for trying to block an abortion clinic or engaging in violence since 1997.

Walz told reporters she co-sponsored the legislation after visiting one clinic on a Saturday and being screamed at by an abortion opponent who confronted her.

Saturday Mornings

The congestion appears “to be limited principally to the Boston clinic on Saturday mornings,” Roberts wrote. “Moreover, by their own account, the police seem perfectly capable of singling out lawbreakers.”

Americans United for Life today called the law “a brazen affront” to the Constitution.

“Massachusetts government officials had sought to use the threat of arrest and criminal conviction to silence those offering women life-affirming alternatives to abortion,” AUL President Charmaine Yoest said in a press statement. “The Supreme Court rightly rejected this unlawful attempt to deny pro-life Americans their First Amendment rights.”

An AUL ally, the Washington-based Pro-Life Action League, said separately that the ruling was a “great vindication of sidewalk counseling.”

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley in a statement said the state won’t surrender its fight to ensure the safety of women approaching abortion clinics. She said she will work with state lawmakers to explore additional legislation that comports with the court’s ruling.

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

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