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Free speech should reign at the Supreme Court as well as outside abortion clinics

June 26, 2014 - Andrea Johnson
Here's a question for you: if a 35-foot buffer zone outside an abortion clinic is illegal, why is it legal to have a buffer zone barring protests within the near vicinity of the Supreme Court itself?

The Supreme Court struck down Massachusetts' abortion buffer zone law in its decision on Thursday. Effectively, they said the state law put too much of a burden on free speech and there were other approaches that the state could have tried first.

The law struck down by the court established a 35-foot buffer zone around an abortion clinic's entrance, exit or driveway. Those who challenged the law said it made it difficult for them to approach women entering the clinic and engage in one-on-one conversation with them. The challengers of the law wanted to stand on a public sidewalk and engage with women approaching the abortion clinic, not to protest on the abortion clinic's property. The Supreme Court ruled that the state of Massachusetts has other laws on the books that would prevent protesters from blocking an entrance, assaulting or harassing women entering the clinic.

However, regulations prohibit demonstrations within the Supreme Court buildings and grounds. Demonstrations on the perimeter sidewalks surrounding the grounds are strictly regulated.

To be precise, Regulation 7 states "No person shall engage in a demonstration within the Supreme Court building and grounds. The term "demonstration" includes demonstrations, picketing, speechmaking, marching, holding vigils or religious services and all other like forms of conduct that involve the communication or expression of views or grievances, engaged in by one or more persons, the conduct of which is reasonably likely to draw a crowd or onlookers. The term does not include casual use by visitors or tourists that is not reasonably likely to attract a crowd or onlookers. "

Along the perimeter, protests are allowed but the regulations specify what type of signs will be allowed, what size they can be and how many signs a protester can carry at one time. The regulation can be found at itself.

Likewise, just how can the so-called '"free speech zones" at political conventions and on college campuses such as the University of California at Santa Barbara be considered constitutional? Those free speech zones, which have been criticized by civil liberties advocates, generally confine protesters to a site some distance away from the political convention. The general effect is to keep the protests "out of sight" of both the TV cameras and of those attending the event and "out of the minds" of everyone.

So why hasn't the Supreme Court struck down the law requiring its own buffer zone? What's sauce for the goose ought to be sauce for the gander.


Article Comments



Jul-02-14 12:25 PM

I know why the Supreme Court has such a rule in place. It is equal parts dignity and decorum and safety and security. They also want to avoid the appearance of having the Supreme Court decisions influenced by protesters.

Still, the abortion clinics made similar arguments about safety and security and the the right of clinic patients not to be harassed. The recent Supreme Court decision said that the convenience of the abortion clinics doesn't come before the right of the protesters to freedom of speech if a less restrictive option can be found. Hence, the same rules ought to apply to the Supreme Court and to politicians at political conventions. Why should they not be troubled by the loudly expressed opinions of protesters on the public sidewalks outside their hotels and convention centers and court buildings? I hope many lawsuits challenging those venue rules are filed in the wake of this court decision.


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