WASHINGTON — In a case watched closely across the country, justices of the US Supreme Court expressed skepticism Wednesday about a Massachusetts law that creates buffer zones outside abortion clinics to restrict demonstrations, questioning whether it goes too far and infringes on the free speech of activists who approach women seeking abortions.
The 2007 state law aims to keep protesters at least 35 feet from the entrances of abortion clinics to quell aggressive demonstrations that have congested sidewalks and prevented people from entering the clinics.
But some justices raised questions about the size of the zone and asked whether the state could find another way to address safety concerns and prevent abortion opponents from impeding access to clinics without limiting their free speech.
“In speech cases, where you address one problem, you have a duty to protect speech that is lawful,” said Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is known for his focus on First Amendment interests.
The Massachusetts law is the only state law of its kind in the country, though municipalities including San Francisco and Portland, Maine, have passed similar laws in recent years. The high court’s decision could affect those laws and other buffer zones across the nation, amid ongoing concerns about public safety. John Salvi shot and killed two people at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Brookline on Dec. 30, 1994, and supporters of the buffer zone law say clients and staff at abortion clinics have regularly encountered intimidating protests since then.
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