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Mass. Moves To Protect Clinics After Supreme Court Ruling; Other Municipalities Weigh 'Buffer Zone' Laws

Mass. Moves To Protect Clinics After Supreme Court Ruling; Other Municipalities Weigh 'Buffer Zone' Laws

July 7, 2014 — Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) on Wednesday said he aims to have a bill on his desk by the end of July to bolster abortion clinic security in a manner consistent with the Supreme Court's recent ruling striking down the state's "buffer zone" law, the AP/Miami Herald reports (LeBlanc, AP/Miami Herald, 7/2).

The buffer zone law, enacted in 2007, only permitted people to enter a 35-foot zone around abortion clinics to access the facility itself or reach another destination.

In striking down the Massachusetts buffer zone law, Supreme Court Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion that "buffer zones burden substantially more speech than necessary to achieve [Massachusetts'] asserted interests." He said the only way for the state to meet the requirement that free-speech restrictions be "narrowly tailored" would be to "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" (Women's Health Policy Report, 6/27).

New Massachusetts Legislation

Patrick on Wednesday said that while the Supreme Court ruling was a "setback for reproductive freedom," the majority opinion outlined a "framework" for actions the state could take to protect clinic access while respecting the free-speech rights of protesters.

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley (D) on Wednesday indicated that she and state lawmakers have started work on legislation (AP/Miami Herald, 7/2). "While ... there is no one single law that can offer the same kind of comprehensive protection that the buffer zone did, we believe we can enhance a number of laws that, when combined together, can help provide safe access to these facilities," she said.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the options include bolstering the state's dispersal law, which permits police officers to order protesters to leave if they are blocking access to a facility, or creating a state version of the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (PL 103-259), which bars the use of physical force or intimidation against people trying to access reproductive health care facilities (Semuels, Los Angeles Times, 7/2).

Lawmakers will have to move quickly on the bill in order to write, file and hold public hearings on the legislation -- and pass it through both chambers of the state Legislature -- before their formal session ends on July 31. After that date, a single lawmaker's objection can stall a bill for the rest of the year, according to the AP/Herald (AP/Miami Herald, 7/2).

Ruling Prompts Rethinking on Other 'Buffer Zone' Laws

In related news, some municipalities have stopped enforcing their buffer zone laws and started to look at alternative means of protecting clinic access amid increased protester activity, the Washington Times reports.

For example, officials in Burlington, Vt., have stopped enforcing the city's 35-foot buffer zone law. The city council is scheduled to discuss the issue on July 14 (Wetzstein, Washington Times, 7/3).

Further, officials in Madison, Wis., have decided to suspend the city's buffer zone, except for a provision that bars people from physically blocking the entrance to a health care facility. Madison City Attorney Michael May said his office is analyzing the Supreme Court ruling and could soon suggest changes to the city ordinance (Mosiman, Wisconsin State Journal, 7/3).

Meanwhile, Eric Scheidler, executive director of the Pro-Life Action League, claimed that "bubble zone" laws in other areas, including Los Angeles, Calif., "are susceptible to the reasoning" in the Supreme Court case. Such laws require protesters to stay a certain distance away from a person as he or she enters a clinic. Scheidler said he is "sure [the laws are] going to go down," although it will likely take "litigation."

However, Marty Walz, CEO of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, noted that a previous bubble zone law in the state was inadequate to stop harassment of patients. The buffer zone law "is the only thing that has ever worked to maintain public safety," Walz said (Los Angeles Times, 7/2).