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Supreme Court strikes down abortion clinic protest buffer zones

Anti-abortion and pro-abortion rights groups react strongly to ruling, while ACLU takes notably reserved stance

In what was a closely watched case, the Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a 35-foot protest-free zone outside abortion clinics in Massachusetts.

The justices were unanimous in ruling that extending a buffer zone 35 feet from entrances to the clinics violates the First Amendment rights of protesters.

Chief Justice John Roberts said authorities have less intrusive ways to deal with problems outside the clinics.

While the court was unanimous in the outcome, Chief Justice John Roberts joined with the four liberal justices to strike down the buffer zone on narrow grounds. In a separate opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia criticized Roberts' opinion for carrying forward "this court's practice of giving abortion-rights advocates a pass when it comes to suppressing the free-speech rights of their opponents."

The decision will further stoke the flames of an already contentious debate between the anti-abortion rights and pro-abortion rights camps.

The Planned Parenthood Federation condemned the ruling, saying it reflects “a troubling level of disregard” for American women who should be able to make medical decisions without running into “a gauntlet of harassing and threatening protesters,” the organization said in a release.

“Today’s ruling isn’t the end of the story,” said Martha Walz, CEO of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts. “Our top priority is to ensure the safety of our patients and staff, and we will work with local law enforcement and elected officials to protect public safety.”

The Pro-Life Action League celebrated the court's decision.

“The pro-life community sees this as a real vindication of the right to peaceful counseling," Eric Scheidler, executive director of Pro Life Action League, told Al Jazeera. "We see this as an opportunity to encourage more people to engage in sidewalk counseling, reaching out to abortion clients so they can choose life.”

The case came to be after Boston-area grandmother Eleanor McCullen and other abortion opponents sued over the limits on their activities at Planned Parenthood health centers in Boston, Springfield and Worcester. At the latter two sites, the protesters say they have little chance of reaching patients arriving by car because they must stay 35 feet from the entrance to those buildings' parking lots.

Planned Parenthood provides health exams for women, cancer screenings, tests for sexually transmitted diseases, birth control and abortions at its clinics.

The organization said that the buffer zone has significantly reduced the harassment of patients and clinic employees. Before the 35-foot zone went into effect in 2007, protesters could stand next to the entrances and force patients to squeeze by, Planned Parenthood said.

Before 2007, a floating buffer zone kept protesters from approaching unwilling listeners any closer than 6 feet if they were within 18 feet of the clinic. The floating zone was modeled after a Colorado law that the Supreme Court upheld. Although that decision was not called into question in Thursday's ruling, Scalia stated in his concurrence that it should be overruled.

"Protecting people from speech they do not want to hear is not a function that the First Amendment allows the government to undertake in the public streets and sidewalks," Scalia said, referring to the Colorado law.

Clinic officials said they are most concerned about safety because of past incidents of violence. In 1994, a gunman killed two receptionists and wounded five employees and volunteers at a Planned Parenthood facility and another abortion clinic in nearby Brookline. The most recent killing was in 2009, when Dr. George Tiller, who performed abortions, was shot in a church in Wichita, Kan.

Abortion protesters said that other state and federal laws already protect health center workers and patients, as well as access to clinics.

"The kind of activities that they are pointing to are already addressed by other state and federal statutes," Scheidler said, adding, "The fact is the justices ruled unanimously that sidewalk counseling is lawful. To infringe on the right to peaceful protest is simply wrong." 

Meanwhile the nation’s premier First Amendment organization notably took a more reserved stance in response to the decision. While agreeing with the holding that fixed buffer zones impose First Amendment costs, the American Civil Liberties Union took issue with the nine justices "underestimation" of the proven difficulty of protecting the rights of women seeking abortions.

“Today’s opinion makes it more important than ever that the police enforce the laws that do exist that in order to ensure that women and staff can safely enter and leave abortion clinics,” the ACLU said, noting that it was a “hard case” for the court.

Al Jazeera and the Associated Press

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