On a 9-0 vote, the court said the 2007 law violated freedom of
speech rights under the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment by
preventing anti-abortion activists from standing on the sidewalk and
speaking to people entering the clinics. The law allowed only
patients, staff, passersby and emergency services to enter the
35-foot (11-metre) zone.
The ruling casts into doubt similar fixed buffer zones adopted by
several municipalities around the country, including San Francisco
and Pittsburgh. The court did not specify under what circumstances
other types of restrictions aimed at keeping public order outside
clinics would be deemed lawful.
The court sent a signal that some laws might be acceptable by
declining to overturn its ruling in a 2000 case that upheld a less
restrictive law in Colorado. That law prevents people outside
clinics from approaching within 8 feet (2-1/2 meters) of another
person without their consent. Montana has a similar law.
The Massachusetts law was enacted in part because of safety concerns
highlighted by violent acts committed against abortion providers in
the past. In 1994, two abortion clinic workers were killed outside a
clinic in Brookline, Massachusetts.
The protesters say their main aim is to counsel women to try to
deter them from having abortions.
Although the court did not say buffer zones are always
unconstitutional, the decision could make it more difficult for
states to pass similar laws in future, said Marcia Greenberger,
president of the National Women's Law Center. Thursday's decision
could give Massachusetts a chance to fashion a new state law.
Eleanor McCullen, the abortion protester who was the lead plaintiff
in the case, welcomed the decision saying it allows her to "offer
loving help to a woman who wants it" without facing the threat of
Abortion remains a divisive issue in America. The Supreme Court in
its landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling legalized abortion. In recent
years, some Republican-governed states have sought to impose new
restrictions on abortion.
Boston will boost police presence around abortion clinics on Friday
morning before assessing next steps, said Kate Norton, spokeswoman
for Mayor Martin Walsh. "There is always concern when a measure that
has been put in place for public safety is removed," she said.
The case specifically concerned people who wanted to protest outside
three Planned Parenthood facilities that offer abortions in addition
to other health services for women in Boston, Springfield and
Planned Parenthood said it plans steps to ensure public safety at
the clinics. Marty Walz, executive director of Planned Parenthood in
Massachusetts, said the group will train new "escorts" to get
patients through picket lines at clinics.
"We have people calling and emailing and volunteering to be escorts
for our patients to make sure that they can come in to our health
centers safely," she said at a news conference in Boston.
[to top of second column]
Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley said in a statement
that "with todayís decision, our work begins again. We are not going
to give up our fight to make sure women have safe access to
reproductive health care" and use "all of the tools we have
available to protect everyone from harassment, threats, and physical
Coakley said her office would work with the governor, legislature
and advocates on "legislative tools that also meet the courtís
requirements." In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts
said no other state has a fixed buffer zone law like Massachusetts.
The law was unconstitutional because it was not narrowly tailored in
a way that took into account the free speech rights of protesters,
The state has "too readily foregone options that could serve its
interests just as well, without substantially burdening the kind of
speech in which petitioners wish to engage," Roberts wrote.
The fixed nature of the buffer meant that protesters would have
difficulty approaching women entering the facility who they wish to
engage in conversation, Roberts said.
McCullen is often forced to raise her voice in order to be heard,
Roberts noted, which is "a mode of communication sharply at odds
with the compassionate message she wishes to convey." Although
unanimous on the outcome, some of the justices differed on their
legal reasoning. Three of the conservative justices said they would
have overruled the 2000 precedent, an outcome that would have cast
other buffer zones into doubt.
"Protecting people from speech they do not want to hear is not a
function that the First Amendment allows the government to undertake
in the public streets and sidewalks," Justice Antonin Scalia wrote
in a concurring opinion.
In a January 2013 ruling, the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in
Boston upheld the Massachusetts law, prompting the challengers to
seek Supreme Court review.
The case is McCullen v. Coakley, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-1168.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Richard
Valdmanis in Boston; Editing by Howard Goller, Will Dunham and Grant
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