The Supreme Court agreed Monday to review a Massachusetts law that prohibits protests within 35 feet of abortion clinics, extending a prolonged legal battle that could have implications for other buffer zone laws across the country.
To the surprise of many observers, the court decided it will hear a challenge to the state’s 2007 law from a group of abortion opponents, who say it unlawfully restricts their free speech rights.
In taking the case, the court appears poised to weigh two competing, strongly held rights: freedom of speech and the ability of women to seek abortion services.
Supporters of buffer zones, citing previous court decisions on similar statutes, said they were confident the statute would be upheld. But critics hailed the court’s decision to revisit the divisive issue.
“We’re delighted,” said Philip Moran, a Salem lawyer who represents the plaintiffs. “We think we have a good shot.”
Moran said the Massachusetts law prevents antiabortion protesters from speaking with women as they enter the clinic.
“You can’t stand outside 35 feet and communicate with people,” he said.
But Marty Walz, chief executive officer for the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, said the law “allows for ample opportunity for protesters to be heard” and speak directly with women entering the health centers.
“I can assure you, their voices are well heard,” said Walz, a former state representative and a lead sponsor of the buffer zone law.
Massachusetts is one of just three states with buffer zone laws, along with Colorado and Montana, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit group focused on sexual and reproductive health research. Some cities, including Chicago and New York City, have such laws. In Burlington, Vt., a federal judge this year upheld an ordinance that also provided a 35-foot buffer.
Rosanna Cavallaro, a law professor at Suffolk University, said the court probably would focus on the “competing interests” between protesters’ right to free speech and clinic patients’ right to be left alone.
“Do you have the right to speak with a bullhorn right up to someone’s face?” she asked. “At some point, speech becomes intimidation and harassment.”
Massachusetts began moving toward a buffer zone law after the 1994 slayings of two clinic workers in Brookline, and the law has survived a series of legal challenges.
In January, the federal appeals court in Boston upheld the law, saying it protected the rights of prospective patients and clinic employees “without offending the First Amendment rights of others.”
“The nation is sharply divided about the morality of the practice and its place in a caring society,” the court wrote. “But the right of the state to take reasonable steps to ensure the safe passage of persons wishing to enter health care facilities cannot seriously be questioned.”
Martha Coakley, the state’s attorney general, said in a statement that the law strikes the “appropriate balance to ensure a woman’s right to safe access to health care facilities while preserving First Amendment rights.” Coakley said she looked forward to defending “this vitally important legislation.”
In upholding the law, courts have cited a 2000 Supreme Court decision affirming a Colorado law that requires protesters to stay 8 feet away from people entering health care clinics.
Protesters say the Massachusetts law puts them at a distance that makes it difficult to distribute fliers and have personal interactions.
“Shouting from a distance is ineffective or counterproductive,” the protesters said in their filing with the Supreme Court. “Likewise, most people will not make the effort to accept proffered literature unless it can be placed near the hands.”
In Boston, the buffer forces people to stand on the edge of the sidewalk or even in the street, Moran said.
Protesters said they believe women often have abortions because they feel “pressured, alone, unloved, and out of options.”
“Petitioners try to position themselves near clinics in an attempt to reach this unique audience, at a unique moment, to offer support, information, and practical assistance,” the petition stated. “They are peaceful, nonconfrontational, and do not obstruct access.”
But Carl Sciortino, a state representative from Medford who authored the buffer law, said it has prevented protesters from harassing and intimidating patients and their families.
“It has worked exactly the way we intended,” he said.