The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments today on McCullen v. Coakley, a case involving the constitutionality of a 35-foot “buffer zone” around abortion clinics in the state of Massachusetts.
While the Court ruled such laws permissible in Colorado in a 6-3 verdict under the Hill v. Colorado case, pro-life protesters hope that the justices overrule or narrow the precedent.
The Massachusetts law passed in 2007 to permit clients and staff to enter “reproductive health” clinics without intimidation. A 1994 shooting that killed two in front of a clinic in Brookline, Mass. spurred reaction against some who blocked the doors and yelled at both staffers and patients.
The law reads that “no person shall knowingly enter or remain on a public way or sidewalk adjacent to a reproductive health care facility within a radius of 35 feet” of any entrance or exit. It permits civil suits for both those “whose rights to provide or obtain reproductive health care services have been violated or interfered with” and “any person whose rights to express their views, assemble or pray near a reproductive health care facility have been violated or interfered with.” Exemptions are made for clinic staff, “persons entering or leaving the facility,” people using the sidewalk, and municipal agents.
However, attorney Steven Aden of the Alliance Defending Freedom told Reuters, “This case is about whether a government has the constitutional ability to cordon off a large section of public space and make it a First Amendment-free zone.”
Four of the justices who voted to protect the law in Colorado have left the court, and what’s allowed under the First Amendment has expanded over the past 13 years.
One significant difference with Colorado’s law is that it is neutral; it creates a “floating buffer” around any health care clinic, as opposed to only abortion ones. A floating buffer allows people to walk within a 100-foot radius, but they cannot approach within eight feet of anybody for the purposes of oral protest or counseling without consent.
As late-term abortion laws pass around the nation, the Supreme Court has another opportunity to influence the national dialogue.