Moral Low Ground

Civil Liberties

Supreme Court Strikes Down Abortion Clinic ‘Buffer Zones’

Anti-abortion protesters in Washington, DC. (Flickr Creative Commons)

Anti-abortion protesters in Washington, DC. (Flickr Creative Commons)

The United States Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that a Massachusetts law prohibiting protests near abortion clinics is unconstitutional.

The justices ruled 9-0 on Thursday in McCullen v. Coakley that the 2007 law, which established 35-foot (10.6 meters) ‘buffer zones’ around abortion clinics, is a violation of protesters’ First Amendment rights.

Abortion foes challenged the law on First Amendment grounds, arguing the ‘buffer zones’ impeded their ability to have quiet conversations about alternatives to abortion with women entering the clinics. Supporters of the law countered that it was enacted in response to repeated harassment and worse — two receptionists were shot dead, and five other people were wounded, when a gunman attacked two abortion clinics in Brookline, a Boston suburb, in 1994.

But the justices rejected the law, asserting “the buffer zones burden substantially more speech than necessary to achieve the Commonwealth’s asserted interests.”

The Court said restricting access to public pathways and sidewalks violated the First Amendment, since those spaces are traditionally forums for free speech and debate. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said that such “sites… have hosted discussions about the issues of the day throughout history.”

Roberts added that in order to enforce the ‘buffer zones,’ Massachusetts “must demonstrate that alternative measures that burden substantially less speech would fail to achieve the government’s interests, not simply that the chosen route is easier.”

“A painted line on the sidewalk is easy to enforce, but the prime objective of the First Amendment is not efficiency,” wrote Roberts.

Although the ruling was unanimous, the majority opinion was relatively narrow. Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote that opinion, was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Justice Antonin Scalia’s concurrence, which was joined by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas, went further, declaring the law “unconstitutional root and branch.”

Justice Samuel A. Alito filed a separate concurrence.

Scalia wrote that the “speech-free zones… add nothing to safety and access; what they achieve, and they were obviously designed to achieve, is the suppression of speech opposing abortion.”

Alito called the law discriminatory.

“It is clear on the face of the Massachusetts law that it discriminates based on viewpoint. Speech in favor of the clinic and its work by employees and agents is permitted; speech criticizing the clinic and its work is a crime. This is blatant viewpoint discrimination.”

Eleanor McCullen, the lead petitioner in the case, hailed the Court’s ruling.

“It restores your faith in the country,” McCullen told the Boston Globe. “The Court recognized our First Amendment rights, and now I’ll have a chance to speak to people one-on-one.”

McCullen added that many women visiting abortion clinics have second thoughts, and that’s where she’s able to step in and influence their decision in a pro-life direction.

“This is life and death,” she told the Globe. “This is about a little child.”

McCullen rejected accusations that anti-abortion protesters are frightening and belligerent.

“We’re not there to disturb the peace,” she said. “We’ll be gentle and loving.”

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, the defendant in the case, issued a statement vowing to “fight to make sure women have safe access to reproductive health care.”

“We will utilize all of the tools we have available to protect everyone from harassment, threats and physical obstruction,” the statement read.

NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts executive director Megan Amundson called the Court’s decision “a giant step back” for women’s rights.

“This decision ignores the very real violence that still occurs at abortion clinics,” Amundson told the Globe. “It disrespects the community right here in Boston that was violated by an armed zealot just 20 years ago,” she added, referring to the 1994 Brookline shooting.

“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.”

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One Comment

  1. jimmJune 26, 2014 at 7:49 pmReply

    The justices should have made a few incognito visits to observe these “gentle and loving” protesters in person before issuing opinions. Once again, a poorly researched decision.

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