Today, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of anti-abortion protesters in a case regarding the First Amendment as it pertains to buffer zones around abortion clinics.
The state of Massachusetts had a 2007 law that forbids anti-abortion protesters from entering a 35-foot radius around the entrances of clinics, marked in yellow around the sidewalks. The law is meant to contain the intimidation, harassment and threats lobbed against staff, patients and escorts at the clinics. McCullen vs. Coakley challenged the law, arguing that it was a violation of protesters’ free speech because the speech of those allowed inside the buffer zone was being privileged over that of those allowed outside the buffer zone.
The Supreme Court unanimously agreed, stating that in previous rulings they have not curbed speech on public sidewalks.
Of course, I’m am disappointed about this decision. I understand the Court’s logical reasoning (even First Amendment experts weren’t in support of the law), but it’s a frustrating ruling due to the extenuating circumstances that affect women’s reproductive choices. Anti-abortion protesters all claim they “just want to talk!” with women seeking abortions, but some of them engage in intimidating behaviors. That infringes on the physical and emotional well-being of patients, their families, the escorts and the clinic staff. The buffer zone is meant to put a physical distance between that intimidation and, in fact, the law came into effect after an anti-abortion gunman murdered two receptionists at reproductive health clinics. Pro-choicers say that the physical distance provided by buffer zones help keep things more calm; they believe that works and I believe them.
Protesters are still welcome elsewhere around abortion clinics; they can hold signs, they can yell into bullhorns, they can even hand out pamphlets if they want. I don’t believe the anti-abortion folks truly care about free speech here, they just care about not having limits put on their harassment. As clinic escort Ashley Hartman told ThinkProgress, “The fact that we even have clinic escorts is a good signifier that we need things like buffer zones. We wouldn’t need escorts if walking into a clinic didn’t involve that type of harassment.” Seriously.
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