The Supreme Court unanimously struck down the 35-foot protest-free zone outside abortion clinics in Massachusetts Thursday, declaring it an unconstitutional restraint on the free-speech rights of protesters.
But Chief Justice John Roberts, joined by the court’s four liberal justices, said states and cities retain ample power to protect medical clinics and their patients. He cited with approval laws that forbid “obstructing access” to a medical clinic or harassing people within 15 feet of an abortion clinic.
Roberts noted that most of the problems reported by police and the clinics in Massachusetts occurred outside a single Planned Parenthood facility in Boston, and only on Saturdays when the largest crowds typically gather.
“For a problem shown to arise only once a week in one city at one clinic, creating 35-foot buffer zones at every clinic across the Commonwealth is hardly a narrowly tailored solution,” said Roberts, who wrote the majority opinion.
Roberts noted that no other state has a similar law and that he is aware of only five cities that have created fixed buffer zones around abortion clinics: Burlington, Vt.; Pittsburgh; Portland, Maine; and San Francisco and Santa Barbara in California.
Although the court’s decision was unanimous, the more conservative justices issued a separate opinion objecting to Roberts’ suggestion that Massachusetts could enact a version of the federal law that prohibits people from blocking abortion clinic entrances.
Justice Antonin Scalia, in a concurrence joined by justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas, said the law is “unconstitutional root and branch.” Justice Samuel Alito filed a separate concurrence.
Scalia said state and local governments around the country would continue to be able to “restrict antiabortion speech without fear of rigorous constitutional review.”
Still, abortion rights advocates lamented the new ruling and said it compromised the safety of women seeking abortions.
“This decision shows a troubling level of disregard for American women, who should be able to make carefully considered, private medical decisions without running a gantlet of harassing and threatening protesters,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
But Mark Rienzi, who represented the protesters, said, “The government cannot reserve its public sidewalks for Planned Parenthood, as if their message is the only one women should be allowed to hear. Today’s decision confirms that the First Amendment is for everyone, and that the government cannot silence peaceful speakers.”
Massachusetts officials who backed the buffer zone said they would try to re-craft the law to address the high court’s concerns.
“The fight is just beginning again,” said state Attorney General Martha Coakley, whose office had argued before the justices.
The buffer-zone case began when Boston-area grandmother Eleanor McCullen and other abortion opponents sued over the limits on their activities at Planned Parenthood health centers in Boston, Springfield and Worcester. At the latter two sites, the protesters say they have little chance of reaching patients arriving by car because they must stay 35 feet not from the clinic entrances but from the driveway to those buildings’ parking lots. Patients enter the building through the parking lots, which are private property.
Planned Parenthood provides health exams for women, cancer screenings, tests for sexually transmitted diseases, birth control and abortions at its clinics.
The organization said that the buffer zone has significantly reduced the harassment of patients and clinic employees. Before the 35-foot zone went into effect in 2007, protesters had been able to stand next to the entrances and force patients to squeeze by, Planned Parenthood said.
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