The Supreme Court ruled on McCullen v. Coakley Thursday, striking down a Massachusetts law requiring protesters to stay at least 35 feet from an abortion clinic's entrance and walkways.
In a unanimous opinion, the court held that such buffer zones violate First Amendment free speech rights.
Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the court. "It is no accident that public streets and sidewalks have developed as venues for the exchange of ideas," Roberts said. "Even today, they remain one of the few places where a speaker can be confident that he is not simply preaching to the choir. With respect to other means of communication, an individual confronted with an uncomfortable message can always turn the page, change the channel, or leave the Web site."
"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," Roberts said.
Eleanor McCullen, the lead plaintiff in the case, is a member of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue who argued the buffer zone violates her First Amendment right to free speech. "It's America," she told NPR earlier this year. "I should be able to walk and talk gently, lovingly, anywhere with anybody."
But abortion clinic escorts, owners and patient advocates claim the protesters that surround clinics on a daily basis and try to follow patients up to the door are anything but gentle. Roxanne Sutocky, a patient advocate at an abortion clinic in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, told The Huffington Post that she has had to coach numerous terrified patients through their walk past the protesters into the clinic.
"We have people with giant, grotesque signs that will scream and videotape patients, and that is something that is directly instilling fear and blocking women's access to their health care," Sutocky said.
Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, said the ruling will make abortion clinics vulnerable to more violence.
"This decision is incredibly disappointing and ignores the very real threats of violence and intimidation that abortion providers and their patients face every day," Saporta said. "Since 1977, there have been 8 murders, 17 attempted murders, 42 bombings, 181 arsons, and thousands of incidents of criminal activities. Anti-abortion groups would like you to think that they are merely engaging in quiet ‘counseling.’ But aggressive threats and intimidation, stalking patients from their cars to the door, and verbally and physically assaulting them is not counseling."
Anti-abortion groups, meanwhile, celebrated the decision on Thursday.
“In a brazen affront to the First Amendment, Massachusetts government officials had sought to use the threat of arrest and criminal conviction to silence those offering women life-affirming alternatives to abortion,” said Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life. “The Supreme Court rightly rejected this unlawful attempt to deny pro-life Americans their First Amendment rights.”
Only three other states, Colorado, Montana and New Hampshire, have buffer zone laws on the books, but the Massachusetts zone was the largest. In 2000, the Supreme Court upheld Colorado's 8-foot "floating" buffer zones around individuals as they walk into and exit an abortion clinic.
Infographic by Alissa Scheller for The Huffington Post.
The court did not rule all buffer zones around abortion clinics unconstitutional -- just those that cover public streets and sidewalks. It also ruled that before resorting to broad restrictions, like prohibiting protesters from standing on the sidewalks, a state has to first try to more narrowly target clinic obstructions. For example, police officers can tell protesters to move aside to let a woman into an abortion clinic, and if that isn't working, the state can then consider a more substantial buffer for patients.
The opinion did not mention the court's prior ruling on floating buffer zones in Colorado, so the constitutionality of that law is now unclear, according to SCOTUS Blog.
“Women have a right to get the health services they need without any fear of harassment or intimidation," White House press secretary Josh Earnest said in a statement responding to the ruling. "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. 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.”
Read the opinion below.