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Supreme Court Strikes Down Mass. 'Buffer Zone' Law

Supreme Court Strikes Down Mass. 'Buffer Zone' Law

June 26, 2014 — The Supreme Court unanimously ruled on Thursday that a Massachusetts "buffer zone" law prohibiting protests within 35 feet of abortion clinics violates the First Amendment's right to free speech, the Boston Globe reports.

The majority opinion, by Chief Justice John Roberts, said, "[B]uffer zones burden substantially more speech than necessary to achieve [Massachusetts'] asserted interests" (Valencia et al., Boston Globe, 6/26).

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined Roberts' opinion, agreeing that the law is unconstitutional because it is not narrowly tailored. The other justices concurred that the law is unconstitutional but said it was because the statute only targets the views of abortion-rights opponents (Haberkorn, Politico Pro, 6/26).

Case Background

The Massachusetts 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 (Women's Health Policy Report, 1/16).

The lead plaintiff in the case is an abortion-rights opponent who regularly protests outside a Massachusetts Planned Parenthood clinic (Politico Pro, 6/26). Plaintiffs' attorneys argued that the law is unconstitutional because it violates their clients' free-speech rights and favors one side of the abortion-rights debate by allowing clinic employees to enter the buffer zone.

Attorneys for the state argued that the law is necessary to prevent protesters from interfering with access to abortion clinics, particularly given the history of violence at abortion clinics in Massachusetts. The state, joined by the federal government, also argued that there is no constitutional guarantee to conversing with someone in close proximity (Women's Health Policy Report, 1/16).

Roberts' Opinion

Roberts wrote that the state pursued its interest in public safety through "the extreme step of closing a substantial portion of a traditional public forum to all speakers" (Politico Pro, 6/26).

He added that while the state has "undeniably significant interests in maintaining public safety on those same streets and sidewalks," it implemented the buffer zone law without first "seriously addressing the problem through alternatives that leave the forum open for its time-honored purposes."

Roberts 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."

For example, traffic ordinances could be used to address the issue of obstructing clinic driveways, while laws barring large groups from congregating for long periods in front of clinics could protect access to entrances, the court said (Boston Globe, 6/26).

Early Reaction

NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue said in a statement that the group is "deeply disappointed" in the court's decision to strike down the law, which "was supported by public safety officials whose goal is to protect women, doctors, and clinic workers from the relentless harassment and intimidation that they face daily." She added that the antiabortion-rights "movement has a long history of violence and has committed eight murders and 17 attempted murders since 1991."

While the justices "acknowledged that these laws play an important role in protecting women and doctors," they "made it more difficult for states to protect their citizens," Hogue said (NARAL release, 6/26).

Separately, Judith Lichtman, senior advisor at the National Partnership for Women & Families, said in a statement, "Instead of allowing Massachusetts to take this reasonable step to protect women accessing essential health care services, the Court is giving extremists freer rein to intimidate and harass women."

"Violence at clinics is real and constant," she said, adding, "The imperative to ensure that these health centers are safe is as urgent as ever" (National Partnership for Women & Families release, 6/26).