Catholic Cardinal: Massachusetts Law is 'Unjust Limitation on Free Speech'

August 4, 2014 - 2:37 PM

Cardinal Sean O'Malley, archbishop of Boston and chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Pro-Life Activities. (AP Photo/Andrew Mendichini)

Cardinal Sean O'Malley, archbishop of Boston and chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Pro-Life Activities. (AP Photo/Andrew Mendichini)

( – Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley blasted a new Massachusetts law limiting protesters’ access to abortion clinics.

“In spite of a unanimous decision of the United States Supreme Court declaring unconstitutional the Massachusetts law enforcing a 35 foot 'buffer zone' around abortion clinics, the Massachusetts legislature acted with unseemly haste to establish what amounts to a new buffer zone of 25 feet,” the Cardinal said in a statement on his blog Friday.

O’Malley characterized the new law as an “unjust limitation on free speech in Massachusetts about a fundamental moral and human issue.”

The Act to Promote Public Safety and Protect Access to Reproductive Health Care Facilities gives police the authority to remove individuals who have “substantially impeded” access to or departure from an abortion clinic. The individual must then stay at least 25 feet away from the clinic for the next eight hours or until the clinic’s close of business.

The law is a response to the Supreme Court’s ruling in June against the state’s buffer zone law, which banned all protests within a 35-foot radius of abortion clinics. The new law was passed by the Massachusetts legislature just a month after the Supreme Court ruling. It was signed into law by Governor Deval Patrick on Wednesday.

“After both branches of the legislature sent the bill to the Governor who signed it into law, the effect again is to make it very difficult for citizens seeking to offer alternatives to women contemplating an abortion,” O’Malley said.

“The civil law must balance the rights and duties of all individuals and we must be vigilant to ensure the safety of all people, regardless of their position on this most serious issue.” he explained.

While the Cardinal said that he recognized “the struggle for all involved,” he added, “I believe preventing any reasonable possibility for dialogue is a misguided use of civil law. The Supreme Court seldom is unanimous in our day; the fact that it was on this question gives me hope that the judiciary will once again correct what I regard as an unjust limitation on free speech in Massachusetts about a fundamental moral and human issue.”

But Planned Parenthood’s president, Cecile Richards, endorsed the new law, saying, “Women shouldn’t have to run a gantlet of screaming, terrorizing, and bullying in order to get legal health care services, and this new law will help ensure that they don’t.”

“Last month’s Supreme Court ruling put women at risk. Barely a month later, Massachusetts is righting the wrong that the Supreme Court’s dangerous and misguided decision created,” she concluded.

Supreme Court Abortion Buffer Zone

This Dec. 17, 2013 file photo shows anti-abortion protester Eleanor McCullen, of Boston, left, standing at the painted edge of a buffer zone as she protests outside a Planned Parenthood location in Boston. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

Brad Puffer, spokesman for state Attorney General Martha Coakley who argued for the previous buffer zone law before the Supreme Court, said in an e-mail to the Boston Globe, “This is not a new buffer zone, and this statute only impacts those who violate the law by threatening or blocking women’s constitutional right to reproductive health care.”

“We used the road map offered by the Supreme Court in drafting this new law and are confident that it properly focuses on protecting public safety around these facilities,” Puffer added.

However, Matt Bowman, senior legal counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), the legal organization that represented the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit that led to the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Massachusetts’ 35-foot buffer zone, told that this new law was also  “unconstitutional.”

The new law says that “a law enforcement official may order the immediate dispersal of a gathering that substantially impedes access to or departure from an entrance or a driveway to a reproductive health care facility.”

Bowman said that it is already illegal to obstruct access to these facilities and that the term “substantially impedes access” is too broad, giving the police the ability to limit free speech by interpreting what constitutes a substantial impediment.

Bowman also took issue with the new law's definition of a gathering as “two or more individuals.”

“No law up till now has defined a crowd as less than three people,” Bowman said. He believes that the new law defines a gathering that way to give police authority over smaller groups of people.

“The new law is unconstitutional not only because it is vague and overbroad, but also because it purports to grant to law enforcement the power to issue a temporary restraining order—a power that may only be exercised by courts,” Michael DePrimo, an ADF attorney who was one of the legal counsels in the Supreme Court case, told Life News on Wednesday.

DePrimo also told the Boston Herald Saturday that he is prepared to sue the state again if necessary to protect pro-lifers’ constitutional rights.

“If they misapply the law in such a way to infringe on First Amendment rights, then certainly we’ll consider filing a new lawsuit,” he said, “My clients don’t engage in behavior prohibited by the law, so that law shouldn’t affect my clients at all.”