Supreme Court: Abortion Buffer Zone Law Violates the First Amendment

By Penny Starr | June 26, 2014 | 10:42pm EDT

FILE - This June 27, 2012, file photo shows an American flag in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

( – In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that the Massachusetts law that established 35-foot buffer zones around abortion clinics “violates the First Amendment.”

“The Massachusetts Act violates the First Amendment,” the decision states. “By its very terms, the Act restricts access to ‘public way[s]’ and ‘sidewalk[s],’ places that have traditionally been open for speech ac­tivities and that the Court has accordingly labeled ‘traditional public fora.’”

"Petitioners wish to converse with their fellow citizens about an important subject on the public streets and sidewalks — sites that have hosted discussions about the issues of the day throughout history," Roberts wrote in the decision. “Respondents assert undeniable significant interest in maintaining public safety on those same streets and sidewalks, as well as preserving access to adjacent healthcare facilities.

“But the Commonwealth has pursued those interests by the extreme step of closing a substantial portion of a traditional public forum to all speakers,” the decision states.

The four conservative justices on the court agreed with the ruling, but said they would have further expanded the protection of free speech.

"It is clear on the face of the Massachusetts law that it discriminates based on viewpoint," Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the minority opinion. "Speech in favor of the clinic and its work by employees and agents is permitted; speech criticizing the clinic and its work is a crime.

“This is blatant viewpoint discrimination,” Alito wrote.

The case, which pitted pro-life activist Eleanor McCullen against the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, got swift reaction from both pro-life and pro-abortion advocates.

“This is huge for the pro-life movement and for women across America,” Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, told on the steps of the Supreme Court following the ruling. “This is huge for free speech.”

Hawkins said that the goal of the pro-life students in her organization to offer women an alternative to abortion would continue.

“This is going to allow them to continue their work to save hundreds of thousands of lives,” Hawkins said.

“We are thrilled and encouraged by the fact that the court recognizes and continues to undergird our First Amendment right to voice our beliefs and to advocate on behalf of life,” Penny Nance, CEO and president of Concerned Women for America, told “This is a victory for women who stand peacefully on the abortion clinic sidewalks and offer hope to women who are desperate.”

"This was a double victory for the First Amendment,” Ashley McGuire, senior fellow with the Catholic Association, said in a statement. “It was a victory for free speech and religious liberty.

“The Supreme Court has rightly held that it is unconstitutional to grant preferential legal status to the speech of pro-abortion activists while punishing pro-life speech,” McGuire said. “And it's a good day for women, because women and their babies benefit from hearing there are alternatives to abortion when they feel they are in crisis."

But pro-abortion groups said the buffer zones protect women who are going into clinics to have an abortion.

“The buffer zone did exactly what it was intended to do: it prevented violence at clinics while allowing anti-choice protestors to express their views,” Megan Amundsom, NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts executive director, said in a statement. “Without it, the only tool we have left to combat clinic violence is to prosecute people after they have already committed violent acts.

“We know that prosecuting zealots does not deter them,” Amundson said. “But violence at clinics does deter women from accessing essential medical care.”

“Today the Supreme Court has effectively ruled that protestors can harass women as they enter women’s health clinics, which has often resulted in women being victims of violence when they are seeking the medical care that they need,” Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force said in a statement. “This is totally unacceptable, and another example of the Right using the guise of free speech to intimidate and harass others into submitting to their beliefs.”

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