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U.S. Supreme Court considers abortion clinic buffer zones

January 15, 2014 - Andrea Johnson
The U.S. Supreme Court is considering today whether a Massachusetts law requiring protesters to stay at least 35 feet away from the state's abortion clinics is constitutional. Protesters say that the law violates their First Amendment rights to free speech.

The Supreme Court had earlier ruled that an abortion clinic buffer zone law in Colorado is legal. The Colorado law requires protesters stay 100 feet away from the entrance to health care clinics and at least eight feet away from people entering health care facilities. The state's buffer zone law is separate from the federal law, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, that makes it a criminal offense to use physical force to prevent someone from going into a clinic or to physically block an entrance to a clinic or a place of worship.

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said "The right to swing my fist ends where my nose begins." In the case of abortion clinic protesters, I would say their rights to protest ends rightfully at the point where they have physically damaged property or have obstructed the entrance to an abortion clinic, preventing that person from exercising his rights. But does the law legitimately require that a protester stand the length of a school bus away from a clinic entrance and those seeking abortions? How constitutional is North Dakota's law, which requires protesters at funerals to stand at least 1,000 feet away from the a funeral site? Those who violate the law are guilty of disorderly conduct.

North Dakota's law was amended to include a wider buffer zone in response to protests by the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., a group which held anti-gay protests outside the funerals of deceased soldiers all over the country. The church holds up signs saying such things as "Thank god for dead soldiers" and "God hates you." In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the protesters couldn't be held liable for causing emotional distress because they were standing on a public sidewalk and exercising their right to freedom of speech about a public issue. States are allowed to regulate where protesters stand. I would guess there are many people who are in favor of the free speech rights of protesters outside abortion clinics who would be appalled by granting similar free speech rights to the Westboro Baptist Church, but there isn't much of a difference, at least as far as I can tell, under the law. Protesters outside abortion clinics and funerals are both exercising their right to freedom of speech and both are causing distress to people who are already emotionally fraught.

How far away should the protesters be required to stand? Should there be any buffer zone required at all, provided the protesters aren't physically assaulting anyone or physically obstructing a church or clinic entrance or trespassing on private property? How do you think the Supreme Court should rule in the case of the 35-foot buffer zone outside abortion clinics in Massachusetts?


Article Comments



Jan-18-14 8:49 PM

Maybe you should have thought about privicy when you dropped your seed...


Jan-17-14 4:17 PM

I think the Supreme Court should rule the 35-foot buffer zone is constitutional. Your right to free speech does not trump my right to privacy or to go about my legal business peacefully. No one is saying they cannot protest, just that they cannot protest in an area which may disturb other people's rights.


Jan-16-14 8:14 AM

Well we are talking Massachusetts now, they should buckle under to some out of state private interests like we do all the time.


Jan-15-14 6:22 PM

If this is so,Why do all the republicans kick out the people protesting at the speaches they are giving?Hum ,Go in peace


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