Better buffer: The justices balance abortion rights and free speech


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Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck down a Massachusetts law restricting anti-abortion protesters outside a 35-foot buffer zone around reproductive health clinics. While women have a right to abortion, the First Amendment rights of abortion opponents also deserve protection — no matter how objectionable some will find their speech.

Few protesters, of course, are as sympathetic as plaintiff Eleanor McCullen, a grandmother who offers “sidewalk counseling.” At other clinics, though, women are confronted with verbally abusive protesters holding photos of dead fetuses. Massachusetts, which witnessed a horrific abortion clinic shooting in 1994, was not wrong to address the issue of public safety for women seeking abortions — its law simply prohibited too many forms of abortion protest to be constitutionally tenable.

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley argued that other measures were harder to enforce and less effective than the buffer zone. The court unanimously rejected this argument, correctly noting that “a painted line on the sidewalk is easy to enforce, but the prime objective of the First Amendment is not efficiency.”

The decision does not leave states with no means to protect women, however. The court’s previous acceptance of an 8-foot “floating buffer zone” remains in effect, and the majority opinion looked favorably on alternate measures, such as letting police disperse unruly crowds of more than three people or criminalizing harassment within 15 feet of a clinic.

Given this ruling, Pittsburgh’s own 15-foot buffer zone, in which people may not “knowingly congregate, patrol, picket or demonstrate,” may need to be altered someday to pass muster.

The court’s decision letting protesters get closer to clinics, however, does not strike a blow against abortion rights. Rather, it reaffirms the First Amendment principle that political speech expressed in public should be protected from far-reaching laws, no matter how well-intentioned.

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