The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision on Thursday, voided the state’s 7-year-old law that created a 35-foot buffer zone outside abortion clinics in Massachusetts that had been challenged on the grounds that it violated protestor’s right to free speech.
The 2007 law replaced a 2000 law that created an 18-foot buffer zone outside health center entrances and a 6-foot floating bubble zone around patients and staff that others could not step into without consent.
Buffer zone opponents argued that the space prohibits pro-life demonstrators and “sidewalk councilors” from speaking to women about abortion alternatives, though women and clinicians said the zone was designed to protect patients and staff from harassment and possible violence.
The case was brought by Eleanor McCullen, a 77-year-old grandmother who seeks to talk to women before they enter the Boston Planned Parenthood clinic.
Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority on Thursday, found that “buffer zones serve the Commonwealth’s legitimate interests in maintaining public safety on streets and sidewalks and in preserving access to adjacent reproductive healthcare facilities,” but wrote that they also “impose serious burdens on petitioners’ speech, depriving them of their two primary methods of communicating with arriving patients: close, personal conversations and distribution of literature.”
The decision suggests Massachusetts could accomplish its goal of preserving public safety and access to clinics by imposing criminal and civil sanctions for “obstructing, intimidating, or interfering with persons obtaining or providing reproductive health services,” or enacting a law requiring crowds blocking a clinic entrance to disperse for a limited period when ordered to do so by the police.
“It restores your faith in the country. The court recognized our First Amendment rights, and now I’ll have a chance to speak to people one-on-one,” McCullen, of Newton, said after the ruling.
Boston Mayor Martin Walsh said he was "extremely disappointed" with the ruling.
"This law was passed with the support of law enforcement who wanted a strong mechanism for ensuring public safety and protecting the safety of health center patients and staff," said Walsh.
"A woman seeking reproductive health care should not be harassed, judged or shamed. The buffer zone allows protection from this harassment while also still allowing protesters to exercise their first amendment rights. As Mayor, I will do everything in my power to ensure the safety of the women seeking care and the staff that work at these facilities. Planned Parenthood and every woman in this city has my support and I will work tirelessly to ensure their protection."
Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts also condemned the ruling:
“This decision shows a troubling level of disregard for American women, who should be able to make carefully considered, private medical decisions without running a gauntlet of harassing and threatening protesters,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. “We are taking a close look at this ruling, as well as patient protection laws around the country, to ensure that women can continue to make their own health care decisions without fear of harassment or intimidation.”
The State House News contributed to this report.