The Supreme Court unanimously ruled Thursday that Massachusetts’s “buffer zone” law, which blocks protesters from demonstrating less than 35 feet from an abortion clinic, is unconstitutional and violates the First Amendment.
The 35-foot buffer zone law passed in 2007, in response to two abortion clinic employees who were shot and killed outside of two Planned Parenthood centers in Brookline, MA in 1994. Advocates for the law claimed that reproductive health patients needed protection from harassment and potential violence from protesters.
The law was challenged by eight people including 77-year-old Eleanor McCullen, who is referred to in the case as a petitioner, one of many “individuals who attempt to engage women approaching Massachusetts abortion clinics in ‘sidewalk counseling’ which involves offering information about alternatives to abortion and help pursuing those options.” McCullen argued that the law violated her right to free speech.
The Supreme Court ruled that the zone included public sidewalks where free speech should be allowed to take place. “In short, traditional public fora are areas that have historically been open to the public for speech activities. Thus, even though the Act says nothing about speech on its face, there is no doubt—and respondents do not dispute—that it restricts access to traditional public fora and is therefore subject to First Amendment scrutiny,” read the ruling.
The ruling noted that the state of Massachusetts may consider several alternative options to protect clinic patients. The law still bans obstruction of abortion clinic entrances. “We will utilize all of the tools we have available to protect everyone from harassment, threats, and physical obstruction,” said Attorney General Martha Coakley.
The ruling has potential to affect other states where buffer zone laws are in place, including Colorado, Montana and New Hampshire. On June 10th of this year, Governor Maggie Hassan (D-NH) signed a 25-foot buffer zone into law despite the pending Massachusetts case.
SB319 states that “No person shall knowingly enter or remain on a public way or sidewalk adjacent to a reproductive health care facility within a radius up to 25 feet of any portion of an entrance, exit, or driveway of a reproductive health care facility.” The law provides exemptions for people passing through, employees of the clinics, and public employees such as police, ambulance and firefighters. The law takes effect July 10th.
Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) defends the New Hampshire law and said of the Massachusetts ruling that “We must be able to respect First Amendment rights while also protecting women at the same time, and I am disappointed by the Supreme Court’s decision which will have an unnecessarily harmful impact on the safety of women seeking to receive legal reproductive healthcare.”
New Hampshire State Representative J.R. Hoell stated “The US Supreme Court’s unanimous decision today simply confirms what the HRA members believed when they fought against SB 319, that it infringes on freedom of speech. Governor Hassan’s signing of the bill must be either because she does not understand our constitutional rights, or has little regard for them. Free speech zones” that prohibit citizens from demonstrating or otherwise expressing their opinions in some locations are blatant affronts to our freedom of speech. Yes, it’s sometimes annoying, but democracy is messy and one person’s convenience is no reason to limit another’s right to speak out.”
“New Hampshire’s law is different than Massachusetts’, but we will closely review today’s decision to determine its impact, if any, on our state,” said Hassan in a statement.
“This is a victory for the right to free assembly and the right to free speech. This court unanimously put aside any political preferences on the issue of abortion and acknowledged this is simply a matter of the First Amendment–something Maggie Hassan refused to recognize in her zeal to protect abortion providers, which is one protection not covered in the Constitution,” said Republican gubernatorial candidate Andrew Hemingway in a statement about the ruling.
Scott Brown, who is currently campaigning for a United States Senate seat in New Hampshire, voted in 2000 to establish the buffer zones in Massachusetts after signing a letter urging that the vote be brought to the House floor. Brown then voted in 2007 to extend the buffer zone from 18 to 35 feet while serving in the Massachusetts legislature. It remains to be seen if those votes will come back to haunt him during his campaign.
Jim Rubens, also a candidate for US Senate in New Hampshire, released this statement: “Restricting peaceful speech and prayer in public spaces – even about controversial subjects like abortion – is flagrantly unconstitutional. I am happy that the court recognized this unanimously.”