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Supreme Court Throws Out Abortion Clinic Sidewalk Buffer Zones, Saying Free Speech Includes Bullying Women

June 26, 2014 in Blogs

By Steven Rosenfeld, AlterNet

Chief Justice John Roberts writes another opinion for the religious right.

In a dramatic blow to reproductive rights, the Supreme Court has ruled that sidewalk buffer zones outside clinics intended to keep protesters from verbally assulting women seeking abortion services are unconstitutional and violate the protesters' free speech.

The ruling, McCullen vs.Coakley, overturns a 2000 Massachusetts law that imposed a 35-foot protest-free zone on “the public way or sidewalk” near the entrance to reproductive health facilities to ensure that women seeking abortions would not be verbally hounded by anti-abortion activists—or even be targeted for sidewalk counseling not to have a planned abortion.

The decision, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, found the sidewalk restrictions were too broad and violated the First Amendment.

“In short, traditional public fora are areas that have historically been open to the public for speech activities. Thus, even though the Act [buffer zone law] 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,” he wrote. “Consistent with the traditionally open character of public streets and sidewalks, we have held that the gov­ernment’s ability to restrict speech in such locations is very limited.”

The case centered around three Planned Parenthood clinics in the Boston area where anti-abortion protesters have spent years trying to discourage and intimidate women from seeking abortions. Roberts distinguished between more aggressive protesters and a group of elderly women who want to offer “comfort” to women entering the clinics—and talk them out of abortions. The lead plaintiff was such an elderly woman. The Chief Justice wrote:

“Some of the individuals who stand outside Massachu­setts abortion clinics are fairly described as protestors, who express their moral or religious opposition to abortion through signs and chants or, in some cases, more aggres­sive methods such as face-to-face confrontation. Petition­ers take a different tack. They attempt to engage women approaching the clinics in what they call “sidewalk coun­seling,” which involves offering information about alterna­tives to abortion and help pursuing those options.”

Roberts said that Massachusetts’ buffer zone had been …read more


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