The Supreme Court Technically Has Its Own 252-Foot Buffer Zone

Attorney General Martha Coakley notes that the court struck down buffer zones outside of abortion clinics when the justices get to enjoy a sprawling buffer zone outside of their own building.

Supreme Court

After the Supreme Court declared that the 35-foot buffer zones separating protesters from people trying to access abortion clinics were unconstitutional, violating the First Amendment rights of those who want to spread their pro-life message, Attorney General Martha Coakley and officials from Planned Parenthood scratched their heads wondering why the court’s own invisible blockade in Washington, D.C., is exempt from the rules.

“I would note that this court decision is made by a Supreme Court that has its own buffer zone,” said Coakley during a press conference Thursday. “They are protected when they sit. Although we respect their legal decision today, I would just note that as the folks with me today, and people across [the state] know, that every day there is a battle for folks who are trying to protect and enforce their own constitutional rights for access. It’s not clear that the court’s decision fully comprehends what that looks like on a day-to-day basis.”

Coakley was referencing the fact the Supreme Court has stringent regulations in place that prohibit protesters from congregating near the front doors—or even the front steps—of the Supreme Court, keeping people expressing their First Amendment rights far away from the federal headquarters where some of the country’s most controversial decisions are made.

The Supreme Court ruling on the state’s buffer zones outside of health clinics states that, by barring protesters from the space outside of a building’s entrance, it regulates access to “public ways” that have historically served as a platform for First Amendment speech to be freely exchanged.

But if the Supreme Court wants people with differing opinions to be able to come together and talk about their respective views, why aren’t similar interactions allowed on the court’s plaza?

According to guidelines that were tweaked by the Supreme Court in June 2013, it’s unlawful for protesters to demonstrate on Supreme Court building grounds. The rules state:

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 Wire reported in 2013 that the court’s updated regulations were in response to a lawsuit filed by a college student who was arrested by police two years prior, while standing on the plaza, for carrying an anti-racism sign that took aim at officers.

The court’s rules about protests on their grounds don’t apply to the sidewalks surrounding the building, but those areas are roughly 252 feet from the court’s doors. The buffer zone separating the plaza from the sidewalks is meant to keep the area clean and safe, and maintain “suitable order and decorum” on the property, according to the regulations.

What’s troubling about the regulations is they take an opposite approach to what the court said pro-life protesters should be allowed to do in front of abortion clinic doors in Massachusetts. But much the like Justices have the power to call the shots on rulings, federal law gives governmental buildings and entities the ultimate discretion when setting security guidelines and protocols.

Like Coakley, Martha Walz, president and CEO of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, was also perplexed by the disparity between what the court justifies as free speech zones on their grounds, versus those in Massachusetts.

“The Attorney General alluded to the fact that the Supreme Court has its own buffer zone,” said Walz. “It was silent today about the constitutionality of its own buffer zone. It side-stepped the issue of whether or not its own buffer zone is constitutional, but the rationale expressed in the decision today certainly calls into question the constitutionality of the [court's] buffer zone, so it will be interesting to see going forward how they address the applicability of today’s decision to what they get the benefit of each and every day that the women in our healthcare centers will no longer get the benefit of.”

Coakley and members of Planned Parenthood have vowed to move forward to find other ways to protect patients going in and out of health facilities in the Commonwealth.

  • Andrei Bilderburger

    Of course Coakley would say this. She’s a communist. She doesn’t believe in property rights so the owners and tenants in the Supreme Court building exercising their rights is an affront to her.

    All Planned Parenthood has to do is rent from landlords who offer private parking and will exclude protesters from the property, or buy a property themselves. It is certainly legitimate to have a private parking lot and only admit those with an appointment or intent to patronize Planned Parenthood – malls do this all the time. Park there and go across the street and have your car towed. Cause a scene in the mall and get thrown out by security.

    The problem with Commisar Coakley is she wants to exercise rights over property she doesn’t own.

    • Len B

      Um, last time I checked the Supreme Court, and most federal buildings, are “owned” by “The People” – including Coakley, and you. Your private property argument, as it applies to the Court building, is flawed. There are other reasons, most notably decorum and security concerns that prohibit demonstrators at SCOTUS, but why shouldn’t decorum and security concerns apply equally to to abortion clinics?

    • hbrooks

      We ARE the owners of the Supreme Court building, including the grounds, and all its contents. To continue with your seriously flawed analogy, we are the landlords while the Court members and staff are the tenant. In fact, the Supreme Court members are the employees of the American people. You should probably not discuss legal matters as it is clear you do not have the requisite knowledge.

    • Medion

      If she’s a communist, what are you? You’re telling us that a PRIVATE ENTITY must allow people to express their 1st amendment rights at their front door, while a PUBLIC ENTITY (the Supreme Court) can restrict 1st amendment rights within 252 feet of “their” building. Do you not realize how backwards that is relative to the intent of the 1st amendment?

      You are absolutely correct in that Planned Parenthood should attempt to reside fully on private property so that they can enforce a “buffer zone” of sorts without going astray of the 1st amendment. Many of them already do this. But you are wrong in that the Supreme Court owns any land and should be allowed to restrict access to it.

    • Drew Humberd

      Good idea! All Planned Parenthood has to do to ensure that women attempting to use their services aren’t assaulted is to spend money they don’t have. Brilliant!

    • Laura Wilson

      Martha Coakley a communist? You lost all credibility there. Planned Parenthood owns its building in Boston. There is private parking. But women still have to drive in to the garage, and the women who come via public transportation have to come in the front door off the sidewalk. That’s where the protestors gather and spread their venom. You have no idea what you are talking about.

      • H.P. Loathecraft

        “You have no idea what you are talking about.”
        That much was abundantly evident by the end of Andrei’s second sentence.

    • H.P. Loathecraft

      You and Martha Coakley are co-owners of the property and building in which the Supreme Court is housed, Comrade.

    • UWIR

      Who do you think owns the sidewalk?

      Given that ATTORNEY GENERAL Coakley is identified as an ATTORNEY GENERAL, it is safe to assume that she is speaking as an ATTORNEY GENERAL. The job of an attorney is not to present their own views, but to present the views of their client. And who is Coakley’s client? The government. And who owns the sidewalks? The government. So, THE GOVERNMENT, as represented by Coakley, want to make rules about their own property. I guess in your world, it’s “communism” when the government holds any property and imposes restrictions on its use?

  • Jan R.

    Get over it. You can’t congregate and protest outside the White House either. High-ranking Federal officials have a longstanding need for strong security. Abortion clinic protesters are annoying and over-animated to the point of ridiculousness, but they don’t rise to the level of meeting the criteria already established for granting buffer zone exceptions to the First Amendment.

    • neroden

      Absoutely backwards. Abortion clinic protestors have actually murdered people in the clinics. Repeatedly. Hundreds of times, actually.

      Protestors around federal officials? Pfft, I think the last time they shot someone was in the 1980s.

      • buck finster

        abortion providers have murdered 56 million people in their clinics.

        • H.P. Loathecraft

          Murder is illegal. Abortion is legal. If you can’t distinguish the difference between legal and illegal, you should be incarcerated until such time as you can demonstrate that you’ve successfully rehabilitated.

        • WhereIsTony

          A fetus is neither an independant human being nor a corporation, so they are not people.

    • Laura Wilson

      Nonsense. It DOES rise to that level, because over the last 25 years there is a known and documented history of assassinations of abortion providers. No Supreme Court justices have been assassinated. If you think that abortion protestors are just “annoying” or “ridiculous,” you are as clueless and out of touch as all those Supreme Court justices are.

    • H.P. Loathecraft

      “Abortion clinic protesters are annoying and over-animated to the point of ridiculousness…”

      Especially the likes of Scott Roeder.

  • Samantha Weinberg

    The Supreme Court has upheld buffer zones in previous cases regarding abortion clinics (ie Schenck vs. Pro-Choice Network of Western NY in 1996). The buffer zone around their own court is more or less irrelevant to the argument. The point they make in all cases regarding buffer zones is that they need to be reasonable and not be too broad in their inhibition of the right to free speech. The court didn’t strike down the entire concept of buffer zones – they just said that the ones put into effect in MA were too big for the circumstances that exist in the state. I’m not saying I agree (as someone who lives right near the Planned Parenthood in Allston, it is a pain in the ass to walk past those protestors) BUT I think everyone needs to calm down and learn the facts before they go freaking out and yelling about the Supreme Court being awful pigs.

  • Patricia Donohue Corcoran

    The law in Massachusetts makes me stand 150 from the entrance to a polling place holding signs for the candidate of my choice. I think my freedom of political speech is being infringed upon by this law.

  • TeaPartyAssassin

    This should mean that ALL buffer zones are unconstitutional including the one in front of the court its self. We should challenge that zone and protest right in front of the main doors and challenge any court cases that may result right back to the same court that said that the buffer zone is a violation of the first amendment. They can not have both ways.

  • omally

    Does the right of free speech extend to some one declaring that Justice Antonin Scalia is a douche bag. I know that declaration could not be have made within the supreme court’s generous 250 foot buffer zone yesterday. But today is different. I’d just like to whisper it to him, in a friendly tip for the day manner. Psst! You’re a douche bag.

  • wjp

    Man…..once they become Supreme interpreters of the law, they forget what they learned in law school, and paint themselves into a corner. Usually, lawyers are really good at getting OTHER people out of a mess…..go figure. Alas, what are they going to do? Recuse themselves from the case? Honestly, this is what is RUINING America……..YUPPIES!

  • taxman10m

    You leave out a very important part of the regulation:
    http://www.supremecourt.gov/publicinfo/buildingregulations.aspx#Reg7
    “This regulation does not apply on the perimeter sidewalks on the Supreme Court grounds.”

    The Massachusetts buffer zone law encompassed the entire sidewalk and then some.

    • WhereIsTony

      Not left out

      The court’s rules about protests on their grounds don’t apply to the sidewalks surrounding the building, but those areas are roughly 252 feet from the court’s doors. The buffer zone separating the plaza from the sidewalks is meant to keep the area clean and safe, and maintain “suitable order and decorum” on the property, according to the regulations.”