The Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously struck down a Massachusetts law that barred protests, counseling and other speech near abortion clinics.
“A painted line on the sidewalk is easy to enforce, but the prime objective of the First Amendment is not efficiency,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in a majority opinion that was joined by the court’s four-member liberal wing.
The law, enacted in 2007, created 35-foot buffer zones around entrances to abortion clinics. State officials said the law was a response to a history of harassment and violence at abortion clinics in Massachusetts, including a shooting rampage at two facilities in 1994.
The Massachusetts law was challenged on First Amendment grounds by opponents of abortion who said they sought to have quiet conversations with women entering clinics to tell them about alternatives. “Petitioners are not protesters,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote.
The court was unanimous about the bottom line but divided on the reasoning, with Chief Justice Roberts writing a narrow opinion. The law blocked too much speech, he said, “sweeping in innocent individuals.”
But Chief Justice Roberts said the state’s concerns could be addressed in other ways, including through laws concerning harassment, intimidation and obstruction. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined the majority opinion.
In a conference call sponsored by Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, officials pledged to protect patients and workers.
“Our patients will be safe,” said Martha M. Walz, the chief executive of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts and a former state legislator.
“One tool has now been taken away,” said Ms. Walz, who was a lead sponsor of An Act Relative to Public Safety, the law struck down by the court. “We will now use the other tools at our disposal,” including laws prohibiting entrances of clinics from being blocked and injunctions against protesters who go too far.
“By striking down the buffer zone today, the Supreme Court has taken away an essential measure to protect public safety and health care access in our state,” she said. “The opinion raises the question of whether the buffer zone at the Supreme Court is in fact constitutional.”
Ms. Walz said that when she was doing research for the legislation in 2007, wearing a guide’s bib and standing at the center’s door, she was confronted by a large protester, “up in my face screaming at me.” She recalled, “It was, to say the least, frightening.”
— The New York Times, “Court Rejects Zone to Buffer Abortion Clinics”