High Court Strikes Down Abortion Clinic 'Buffer Zone' Law

The Supreme Court eased restrictions on protesters at clinics that perform abortions. The court invalidated a Massachusetts law that created a 35 foot buffer outside abortion clinics in the state.

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And I'm Steve Inskeep. A Supreme Court ruling yesterday tried to draw the line between competing rights - the right to an abortion, the right personal safety, the right to free speech. The Court invalidated a Massachusetts law that created a 35-foot buffer zone outside clinics that provide abortions. The buffer zone was intended to protect patients and staff. Now, years ago, the High Court upheld the use of what were called floating buffer zones of eight feet. But Massachusetts found that did not work. The state experienced considerable violence, including shootings at two clinics that killed two people and wounded five. Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Despite the history of violence, all nine justices agreed that the flat 35-foot buffer zone violated the First Amendment free speech rights of protesters. Chief Justice John Roberts writing for himself and the Court's four liberals said that only the Boston clinic seemed to have real problems and usually only once a week. Therefore, he said the buffer zone for all abortion clinics in the state cut too widely. American University law professor Bill Yeomans served for 26 years in top Justice Department jobs, supervising the enforcement of laws dealing with abortion clinic violence.

BILL YEOMANS: What this means is that there will be revisiting of an awful lot of buffer zones around the country. And so it's going to be more difficult for people who operate clinics.

TOTENBERG: Yeomans has added that it, quote, "could have been much worse." Indeed, four of the Court's conservatives would have tolerated no buffer zone, saying such zones allow abortion-rights advocates to suppress the speech of their opponents. Justice Antonin Scalia, joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas, said that the majority opinion, quote, "carries forward this Court's practice of giving abortion-rights advocates a pass, when it comes to suppressing the free-speech rights of their opponents." Justice Samuel Alito wrote separately saying that buffer zones constitute viewpoint discrimination. Anti-abortion forces were elated by the ruling. Troy Newman is president of Operation Rescue, which brought the challenge to the Massachusetts law.

TROY NEWMAN: No longer is Massachusetts going to be allowed to have speech-free zones for pro-lifers. They're not going to be able to target people that are trying to dissuade women from having unsafe and sometimes very dangerous abortion decisions.

TOTENBERG: He said he expected the ruling to be a boon to those opposing abortion.

NEWMAN: Our success rate is dependent on the ability to talk to women. With this buffer zone pushing people way, way, way back, away from the door, the success rate drops.

TOTENBERG: Although, Chief Justice Roberts characterized the Operation Rescue activists as counselors and not protesters. Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, disagreed.

VICKI SAPORTA: These people on the sidewalks have no counseling background. Their sole purpose is to dissuade and intimidate women from choosing abortion care. And I don't think anybody in the medical profession would consider it any type of counseling whatsoever.

TOTENBERG: Saporta said a survey of the Federation's clinics found that 90 percent of women reported they feared for their safety, when accessing abortion care. And nearly 80 percent of the clinics had to call law enforcement because of protest activity that threatened safety or access. Former Justice Department official Yeomans has a different view of the protesters in this case.

YEOMANS: I don't think anyone portrays them as physically threatening or overly obstructive.

TOTENBERG: But, he adds...

YEOMANS: There is a history of a real threat to public safety behind these ordinances. And I think it's important to acknowledge that that violent background is still there.

TOTENBERG: While Massachusetts is the only state to have a one-size-fits-all buffer zone law for the whole state, Yeomans says many local governments have similar laws that will now have to be rewritten. The problem, he observed, is that local governments sometimes lack the resources of state government to enforce the law. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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