The Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously struck down a Massachusetts law establishing a 35-foot buffer zone outside abortion clinics, ruling that it violates the First Amendment.
Because the Massachusetts law encompasses public sidewalks, the court concluded the buffer zone makes it impossible to converse with women walking to abortion clinics.
“They impose serious burdens on petitioners’ speech, depriving them of their two primary methods of communicating with arriving patients: close, personal conversations and distribution of literature,” Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote of the restrictions.
Writing for the court, Roberts stressed the difference between vehement protesters and those who simply want to talk. The purpose of the latter group, which includes Eleanor McCullen and the six others who filed the suit, is to speak with women en route to abortion clinics and not to yell at them, Roberts wrote.
Though the ruling was relatively narrow, the public response was sharply divided.
“Let’s be clear: Today’s decision puts women and health care providers at greater risk,” NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue said. “We will work to make sure that legislatures in states are focused on making clinics safe for women free of harassment, intimidation and violent acts.”
Religious groups, meanwhile, thanked the court for upholding their rights under the First Amendment.
“The bubble zone of government-imposed silence around abortion clinics has burst,” declared the Rev. Frank Pavone, the national director of Priests for Life.
The court noted options that Massachusetts could use to keep women safe from potential violence when they go to abortion clinics. Roberts suggested that Massachusetts use traffic ordinances to keep activists away from driveways that adjoin abortion clinics and pass a state law similar to the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act of 1994.