Supreme Court Unanimously Strikes Abortion Clinic Buffer Zone
Thursday, June 26, 2014, the US Supreme Court unanimously struck down the Massachusetts law that required a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics.
The law prevented anyone from demonstrating within thirty-five feet of an abortion clinic, but “the Commonwealth may not do that consistent with the First Amendment,” said Chief Justice John Roberts in McCullen v. Coakley.
“The buffer zones impose serious burdens on petitioners’ speech.”
Massachusetts argued that it was protecting public safety by enacting the buffer law, but the unanimous Court found, “The Commonwealth has pursued those interests by the extreme step of closing a substantial portion of a traditional public forum to all speakers.”
Justice Roberts recognized that pro-life activists have a significant interest in occupying the public fora directly in front of abortion clinics.
“Because petitioners in Boston cannot readily identify patients before they enter the zone, they often cannot approach them in time to place literature near their hands—the most effective means of getting the patients to accept it.”
Yet the Massachusetts law prescribed this very action. “The zones carve out a significant portion of the adjacent public sidewalks, pushing petitioners well back from the clinics’ entrances and driveways,” said Justice Roberts.
When discussing whether Massachusetts’s law was content neutral, Justice Roberts said, “If, for example, the speech outside Massachusetts abortion clinics caused offense or made listeners uncomfortable, such offense or discomfort would not give the Commonwealth a content-neutral justification to restrict the speech.”
Justice Roberts concluded his Opinion saying that citizens have a right to make use of public fora for discussion.
“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.”
Read the entire Opinion here.
Photo credit Steve Rohdes.