Abortion Protesters Can Now Get Much Closer to Clinics

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Photo: Saul Loeb/Getty Images

The Supreme Court today unanimously struck down a Massachusetts law that required a 35-foot buffer zone around the entrance to abortion clinics in hopes of preventing violence and harassment. "The buffer zones burden substantially more speech than necessary to achieve the Commonwealth's asserted interests," wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in the decision, concluding that the law violates the First Amendment. "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."

While the Court ruled that the state had not adequately attempted less intrusive methods, the National Organization for Women called out the ruling's "cavalier disregard for the physical safety — the lives, even — of women seeking abortion care and the health care providers who serve them." (A shooting at a clinic outside of Boston killed two people in 1994.)

The Supreme Court previously upheld a comparable law in Colorado that called for eight-foot "bubble zones" between protesters and other people within 100 feet of all health-care facilities. As another alternative, the Court offered, concerns "could be addressed through a law requiring crowds blocking a clinic entrance to disperse for a limited period when ordered to do so by the police." According to SCOTUS Blog, the ruling "signals that states can pass laws ensuring access to clinics but cannot more broadly ban speech on public streets and sidewalks."

The Supreme Court, meanwhile, maintains a tight perimeter: "No person shall engage in a demonstration within the Supreme Court building and grounds."