Supreme Court strikes down law on abortion clinic buffer zones

The Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously struck down a Massachusetts law that created a buffer zone, barring protesters from coming within 35 feet of abortion clinics, as unconstitutional.

The court found that the law violated First Amendment free speech rights. [Read the court’s ruling.]

The high court had previously upheld a similar 8-foot buffer zone in a Colorado case, but in McCullen v. Coakley, Chief Justice John Roberts noted that the Massachusetts law also encompassed public walkways and sidewalks, which “occupy a ‘special position in terms of First Amendment protec­tion.’ "

“Petitioners wish to converse with their fellow citizens about an important subject on the public streets and sidewalks — sites that have hosted discussions about the issues of the day throughout history,” wrote Roberts in the court’s opinion.

Supporters of the measure say the buffer zone is needed to protect women seeking abortions and their healthcare providers from harassment and potential physical violence from anti-abortion activists.

Opponents, though, said that the zones prevented them from counseling women before they decided whether to have an abortion.

The state had “undeniably significant interests in maintaining public safety on those same streets and sidewalks, as well as in preserving access to adjacent healthcare facilities,” Roberts acknowledged.

“But here the Commonwealth has pursued those interests by the extreme step of closing a substantial portion of a traditional public forum to all speakers,” he wrote.

The chief justice said the state had failed to consider “alternatives that leave the forum open for its time-honored purposes.”

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined the court’s opinion, while the four conservative justices agreed with the decision but on different grounds.

Roberts said the Massachusetts law was “content neutral,” but Justice Antonin Scalia said it specifically targeted anti-abortion speech.

“Today’s opinion carries forward this Court’s practice of giving abortion-rights advocates a pass when it comes to suppressing the free-speech rights of their opponents,” said Scalia, whose concurrence was joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.

“The obvious purpose of the challenged portion of the Massachusetts Reproductive Health Care Facilities Act is to ‘protect’ prospective clients of abortion clinics from having to hear abortion-opposing speech on public streets and sidewalks,” wrote Scalia.

In a separate opinion, Justice Samuel Alito said the law “clearly discriminates” against the protesters’ viewpoint.

“Women have a right to get the health services they need without any fear of harassment or intimidation,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in a statement. “As we made clear in our court filings, we believed that Massachusetts’ buffer zone law protected those rights in a commonsense manner that also respected everyone’s First Amendment rights.

“While the Court disagreed on this specific law, we are pleased that their ruling was narrow and that they recognized the possibility of alternative approaches, such as the federal law protecting a woman’s right to access reproductive health clinics,” he added. “The Administration remains committed to enforcing that law to the fullest. We also support any efforts by Massachusetts to pass a new buffer zone law that addresses the very narrow concerns that the Court identified in today’s decision.”

The National Organization for Women, an advocate for abortion rights, condemned the decision, saying it showed a “cavalier disregard” for the physical safety and of women seeking abortions and their healthcare providers.

“In a country where patients and doctors have endured horrific violence at the hands of what can only be called domestic terrorism, the Court’s denial of basic protection in the form of a buffer zone is unconscionable,” said NOW.

The group noted that the Massachusetts buffer zone law was passed after a gunman attacked two clinics in the state, killing two and injuring five others.

NOW called the court’s own 100-foot anti-protest buffer zone hypocritical and demanded it be taken down.

Anti-abortion groups, however, lauded the court’s decision as a win for free speech.

“Today’s Supreme Court ruling in McCullen v. Coakley is wonderful news for all Americans because it upholds our crucial First Amendment rights of free speech ... perhaps no more important than for women considering abortion because it frees sidewalk counselors at abortion facilities to be able to offer compassionate and caring alternatives,” said Kristina Hernandez, a spokeswoman for Students for Life of America.

NARAL Pro-Choice America said it feared women seeking abortions will be intimidated into turning away from clinics.

“The buffer zone did exactly what it was intended to do: it prevented violence at clinics while allowing anti-choice protestors to express their views,” said Megan Amundson, executive director of the groups Massachusetts chapter. “Without it, the only tool we have left to combat clinic violence is to prosecute people after they have already committed violent acts.” 

—Justin Sink contributed to this report, which was last updated at 3:44 p.m.