Health & Human Services

Supreme Court Rules Abortion Clinic Buffer Zones Violate Free Speech

by | June 27, 2014

By David G. Savage

The Supreme Court gave both sides in the abortion wars a partial victory Thursday in setting rules for protests at health clinics, deciding that laws may forbid people from obstructing the entrance as long as demonstrators are free to speak on the sidewalk.

The justices unanimously struck down a Massachusetts law that set a 35-foot buffer zone on the sidewalks near abortion facilities. The court said this no-standing, no-talking zone violated the First Amendment.

But Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., joined by the court's four liberal justices, said states and cities retain ample power to protect medical clinics and their patients. He cited with approval laws that forbid "obstructing access" to a medical clinic or harassing people within 15 feet of an abortion clinic.

Roberts said states and cities have "undeniably significant interests in maintaining public safety ... as well as in preserving access to adjacent health care facilities." He said Massachusetts had gone too far by taking "the extreme step of closing a substantial portion of a traditional public forum to all speakers. It has done so without seriously addressing the problem through alternatives" that would have allowed continued protests on the sidewalks, he said.

Four more conservative justices, led by Antonin Scalia, said they would have gone further and declared all buffer zones unconstitutional if they prohibit "abortion-opposing speech on public streets and sidewalks."

Though the court's ruling in McCullen vs. Coakley is a defeat for abortion-rights advocates, it preserves laws and court rulings across the country that put limits on those who would try to block patients from entering abortion facilities.

Even the court's liberal justices agreed that the 35-foot buffer zone in Boston was broader than needed to keep the entrances of such facilities free of obstruction.

Leaders of NARAL Pro-Choice America said they were "deeply disappointed" with the court's decision.

"The buffer zone did exactly what it was intended to do: It prevented violence at clinics while allowing anti-choice protesters to express their views," said Megan Amundson, executive director of the group's Massachusetts affiliate. "Without it, the only tool we have left to combat violence is to prosecute people after they have committed violent acts."

Judges had been divided over whether such no-protest zones violate the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court in 2000 had upheld an eight-foot buffer zone in a Colorado case, but over vehement dissents from Justices Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. They insisted that this restriction on public sidewalks violated free-speech principles.

The latest case was brought by Eleanor McCullen, a 77-year-old grandmother who seeks to talk to women before they enter the Boston clinic.

Mark Rienzi, lead counsel for McCullen and a professor of constitutional law at the Catholic University of America in Washington, welcomed the ruling.

"The government cannot reserve its public sidewalks for Planned Parenthood, as if their message is the only one women should be allowed to hear," he said. "Today's decision confirms that the First Amendment is for everyone, and that the government cannot silence peaceful speakers. That result is good news for Eleanor McCullen, and it is great news for the women she helps."

(c)2014 Tribune Co.

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