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Justices Revisit Clinic 'Buffer Zones' This Week; Op-Ed Defends Mass. Law

January 13, 2014 — The Supreme Court on Wednesday is scheduled to hear oral arguments in a case challenging a Massachusetts law that prohibits protests within 35 feet of abortion clinics, the AP/Modern Healthcare reports (AP/Modern Healthcare, 1/12).

Background on 'Buffer Zone' Law

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

In a February 2012 ruling, U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro rejected claims by antiabortion-rights protesters that the law violates their freedom of speech. He said the law gives protesters "ample alternative means of communication" with minimal restrictions. In August 2008, he ruled to uphold the constitutionality of the law itself. In January, a three-judge panel of the First U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Tauro's decision.

In June, the Supreme Court announced it would hear an appeal of the lower court ruling that upheld the law (Women's Health Policy Report, 11/19/13).

Previous Supreme Court Ruling

Defendants in the case cite a 2000 decision in which the Supreme Court upheld a similar law in Colorado, which created 100-foot buffer zones outside all health care facilities, as opposed to only abortion clinics. Under the law, which the justices upheld in a 6-3 vote, protesters cannot approach people within eight feet for counseling, education or protest without their consent.

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley (D), the lead defendant in the case, said, "Nothing has changed [since 2000] except the court." The Times notes that some justices who have joined the Supreme Court since the ruling are considered more open to free-speech claims and some restrictions on abortion rights (Liptak, New York Times, 1/12).

Specifically, the three dissenters in the Colorado case -- Justices Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas -- are still serving on the court, while Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, who have joined the court since the decision, might side with the protesters (AP/Modern Healthcare, 1/12).

Op-Ed Defends Law

"Massachusetts residents need this law" to be protected from "[v]iolent, extremist antiabortion protesters led by Operation Rescue [who] have targeted our local reproductive health centers since the late 1980s," Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts President Marty Walz writes in a USA Today opinion piece.

She notes that although many protesters "are merely exercising their right to free speech ... some are aggressive and intimidating, harassing patients and staff, blocking entrances to the health center, and even physically assaulting people who are simply trying to get to their doctor's appointment."

Walz, who co-sponsored the 2007 law during her time in the Massachusetts House, argues, "Protesters continue to express their views and engage in conversations with patients, but they do so outside the buffer zone," adding, "Also, the zone applies equally to everyone, whether they support or oppose the decision a woman has made about her own pregnancy."

"Our law in Massachusetts is working well, protecting the safety of patients and staff while respecting everyone's free-speech right," Walz writes, concluding, "The Supreme Court should allow it to remain in place" (Walz, USA Today, 1/11).