The US Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously struck down a Massachusetts law that banned protesters within 35 feet of abortion clinics, ruling that the law infringed upon the First Amendment rights of antiabortion activists.
The decision effectively overturns about 10 fixed-buffer-zone laws across the country, from San Francisco to Portland, Maine, but offers a framework for more limited restrictions around clinic demonstrations, legal experts said.
“They’ve approved the idea of this kind of law, just not the mechanism,” said Jessica Silbey, a Suffolk University Law School professor. “It was too broad.”
State lawmakers said they would act quickly to pass legislation to provide protections for women seeking abortions and counseling. It was unclear what form the legislation would take.
The high court ruled that the state law, enacted in 2007, imposed “serious burdens” on protesters who wish to speak with arriving patients.
“At each of the three Planned Parenthood clinics where petitioners attempt to counsel patients, the zones carve out a significant portion of the adjacent public sidewalks, pushing petitioners well back from the clinics’ entrances and driveways,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the majority opinion.
The law broadened a previously enacted floating buffer zone, which kept protesters 6 feet away from anyone who was within 18 feet of a clinic.
It was passed in response to the fatal shootings of two staff members at abortion clinics in Brookline in 1994.
Abortion opponents hailed the ruling as restoring their rights to free speech.
“The court recognized our First Amendment rights, and now I’ll have a chance to speak to people one-on-one,” said Eleanor McCullen, the lead petitioner in the case.
But the decision left supporters — who said the ruling overturned an effective measure that allowed patients and staff members to enter clinics without being harassed — vowing to find ways to keep the facilities safe.
Attorney General Martha Coakley, whose office defended the law in arguments before the court, said the decision left intact part of the law banning deliberate obstruction of clinic entrances.
“We will utilize all of the tools we have available to protect everyone from harassment, threats, and physical obstruction,” said Coakley, adding that her office’s Civil Rights Division was prepared to issue injunctions against “those who would threaten or harass.”
Martha Walz — president of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, which has health centers in Boston, Springfield, and Worcester that provide abortion services — said police officers had assured her they will enforce laws protecting clinics. Volunteers will also be available to escort patients and staff if necessary, she said.
“We will exhaust all options to protect the safety of patients,” Walz said.
Walz, a former state legislator and one of the lead sponsors of the 2007 measure, said the law transformed the sidewalks outside clinics into “a safe, peaceful environment.”
“The law worked,” she said.
Before, protesters could stand in the clinic doorway, shoulder to shoulder, forcing people to squeeze through. Walz recalled a visit when a protester screamed at her from just inches away.
“It was, to say the least, frightening,” Walz said. “That is what is of such concern to us. The court is essentially saying that kind of behavior may resume.”
McCullen, a Newton grandmother and the lead petitioner in the case, said she was thrilled by the unanimous ruling.
“It restores your faith in the country,” said McCullen, 77.
McCullen said the buffer zone has made it difficult for her to speak with people entering a clinic in Boston. She stands outside the clinic twice a week.
McCullen said that many visitors to the clinic are hesitant and that she and others have persuaded hundreds of women to forgo abortions.
“This is life and death,” she said. “This is about a little child.”
Mark Rienzi, lead counsel for McCullen and other activists who challenged the law, said the ruling “affirmed a critical freedom.”
Similarly, Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, chairman of the US Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities, called the law “an attack on prolife Americans’ freedom of speech’’ and said the bishops “welcome the court’s decision to overturn the law.”
When they heard the case in January, the justices indicated that the state needed to find a middle ground that would address safety concerns without violating First Amendment rights.
In the decision, it said that Massachusetts could model restrictions on a 1994 federal law that bans interfering with persons obtaining or providing reproductive health services.
Roger Evans, senior counsel for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said more flexible restrictions remain valid for now.
“What the court said is that if you create a space on public property where protesting is simply not allowed, that’s not going to withstand constitutional scrutiny,” he said.
State legislators said they would act quickly.
“We have to do something in order to provide protections for those folks who are using the clinics,” said House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo, a Democrat from Winthrop.
“We’re very concerned about the ruling,” said Senator William N. Brownsberger, a Belmont Democrat who chairs the Joint Committee on the Judiciary. “We’re going to work hard to craft an appropriate response.”
Brownsberger and Representative Christopher M. Markey, a Dartmouth Democrat and House vice chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said lawmakers will speak with police and clinic employees to learn what needs to be done.
“We’re still looking at it and making a determination of what to do,” Markey said.
Brookline police Lieutenant Philip Harrington said the department has supported the buffer zone, believing it has reduced the likelihood of physical confrontations. In light of the ruling, police will make “the necessary adjustments” to comply with the law, he said.
“Ultimately our goal is to strike a balance between keeping people safe, while allowing them to exercise their constitutional rights,” he said.
At Women’s Health Services in Brookline, Dr. Laurent Delli-Bovi said that without the buffer zone, patients will feel even more vulnerable.
“It doesn’t seem to me that First Amendment rights include being able to force someone into a conversation with you that they don’t want to have,” she said. “It’s a sad, bad decision.”
Delli-Bovi, who owns the health center, said she had worked with one of the victims of the 1994 shooting, a receptionist at Planned Parenthood.
“That was devastating and particularly an eye-opener for people in Massachusetts,” she said. “People think that can’t happen here, and it did.”
On Commonwealth Avenue in Boston Thursday, one protester, Ray Neary, stood behind the thick yellow painted line that marks the buffer zone around Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts.
When women entered the building, he said: “Give life a chance. Every child deserves a birth day.”
Neary, a retired educator from Medfield, said the Supreme Court ruling will help him continue his efforts.
“They try to cast us as different than who we really are,” said Neary. “We are peaceful.”
About 20 people protest at the Boston clinic on Saturdays, the busiest demonstrations, Neary said.
Jaime Dasque, 36, who lives near the Boston clinic, said she often hears the protesters chanting and singing and said they intimidate women.
“They make something that is already an emotional and horrific thing that is hard to choose to do, even harder,” she said.
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