July 15, 2014 — A Massachusetts bill filed Monday aims to bolster security and anti-harassment protections at the state's reproductive health centers after the Supreme Court struck down its 35-foot "buffer zone" law, the New York Times reports (Bidgood, New York Times, 7/14).
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 law, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion that "buffer zones burden substantially more speech than necessary to achieve [Massachusetts'] asserted interests" (Women's Health Policy Report, 7/7).
New Legislation Details
The new bill, filed by state Sen. Harriette Chandler (D), would give law enforcement personnel the authority to give dispersal orders if two or more protesters deliberately prevent patients or staff members from entering a clinic. Individuals who receive such orders would be required to stay at least 25 feet away from the clinic's entrance for up to eight hours.
The bill also would prohibit protesters from interfering with vehicles approaching or leaving the area, as well as intimidating or harming people accessing the clinic.
Bill Aims To Address Free-Speech Issues
The bill's supporters said it would not create a new buffer zone but instead would bolster existing public safety laws and create new ones (LeBlanc, AP/MassLive, 7/14).
Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard University, said the measure "is a much more narrowly focused bill" than the previous law. He noted that it "prohibits obstruction of access" not "expression of free speech," which the Supreme Court focused on in its ruling.
However, Patricia Stewart, executive director of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, said the "25-foot dispersal area seems to be another name for a buffer zone," which could prompt "a further constitutional challenge" (New York Times 7/14).