Supreme Court Strikes Down Massachusetts’ Buffer Zone Law

The 35-foot invisible barrier that once separated protesters from people going into abortion clinics was deemed unconstitutional.

Image via Associated press

Image via Associated press

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that allowing a “buffer zone” outside of the doors of abortion clinics, separating protesters from patients trying to make appointments or obtain health information, violates the First Amendment.

In a unanimous decision, the Justices overturned the state’s current law, which creates a bubble-like barrier etched in paint around the front entrances to sexual and reproductive health care facilities.

“Petitioners are individuals who approach and talk to women outside such facilities, attempting to dissuade them from having abortions. The statute prevents petitioners from doing so near the facilities’ entrances,” the court wrote. “By its very terms, the Massachusetts Act regulates access to ‘public ways’ and ‘sidewalks.’ Such areas occupy a ‘special position in terms of First Amendment protection’ because of their historic role as sites for discussion and debate.”

In 2000, Massachusetts passed the original buffer zone law, which kept pro-life protesters 18 feet away from patients and employees coming in and out of the clinics. After claiming the space was ineffective, the state passed new legislation in 2007, with the backing of Attorney General Martha Coakley, to extend the zone to 35 feet. The law was meant to further diffuse the intense interactions between pro-life advocates and patients or employees, making it a punishable offense for people without business at a health center to “knowingly stand on a public way or sidewalk” any closer than the designated zone.

Protesters challenged the new law in U.S. District Court, and later, the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals, but their attempts to block the expanded space were denied, and the law was upheld. On Thursday, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the protesters’ favor, calling the buffer zone a violation of free speech.

The justices said the buffer zones burden substantially more speech than necessary to achieve the Commonwealth’s asserted inter­ests.

Pro-life activists called the decision a victory. “These buffer zones have not only denied pro-life activists their right to speak, but have also denied women the right to hear information about abortion that could be wanted and helpful to them in making a decision that will affect the rest of their lives,” said Troy Newman, President of Operation Rescue, which has a branch in Boston. “We are very pleased with today’s ruling that upholds our precious First Amendment rights to speak out in the public forum without interference from the abortion cartel. We know that lives will be saved as a result of this decision.”

In a brief statement on Twitter, representatives from Planned Parenthood said despite the ruling they would continue to push for the protection of patients visiting their facilities. “This isn’t over: women deserve to be able to visit their doctor and make private decisions without being harassed,” they said.

In response to the decision, activists from the area started discussing plans to create a human blockade to counter the protesters that frequently congregate outside the offices of Planned Parenthood in Boston.

Planned Parenthood Advocacy Fund of Massachusetts stated immediately after the court’s decision that they were already working on legislation with state officials to create a new bill to protect women from protesters standing outside of the buildings. They said the court’s ruling “shows a shocking disregard for the safety of patients and staff entering reproductive health centers.”

The court’s ruling can be read in its entirety below:

Buffer Zone