Governor Deval Patrick and Attorney General Martha Coakley, responding to last week’s Supreme Court decision striking down the state’s buffer zone law, called Wednesday for legislation to crack down on harassment and obstruction outside abortion clinics.
The proposal would give police greater authority to break up unruly crowds and give the attorney general greater leeway to pursue injunctions against anti-abortion protesters at the clinics.
Legislative leaders did not specifically endorse the proposals, but praised efforts by Patrick and Coakley. Lawmakers have indicated they are committed to passing new police powers before the legislative session comes to a close at the end of the month.
The push comes a week after the Supreme Court struck down the state’s law, which barred protesters from being within 35 feet of abortion clinics. The court ruled the law was an unconstitutional infringement on the free-speech rights of antiabortion activists and suggested the state could pursue more limited measures to ensure patients’ safety.
Patrick and Coakley, appearing at a State House press conference with two prominent abortion rights proponents, cast their proposal as a narrowly tailored approach that would meet legal muster.
“The Supreme Court may not have liked our buffer zone, but they did not lessen our commitment to protecting women’s access to reproductive health care in this Commonwealth,” said Coakley, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor.
The attorney general said her office, along with the governor’s office, lawmakers, and abortion rights activists, are looking at several approaches. They include updating a law that allows police to disperse unruly crowds so it targets protests in front of abortion clinics, giving the attorney general greater authority to seek fines and court orders to block individual protesters from clinics, and steps to protect driveway access at clinics.
Martha Walz, chief executive of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, mentioned a fourth possibility: replicating a New York City ordinance, cited approvingly in the Supreme Court decision, that makes it a crime “to follow and harass another person within 15 feet of the premises of a reproductive health care facility.”
Walz, who spoke at the press conference alongside Coakley, Patrick, and Megan Amundson, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, said protesters who follow and harass patients are a significant problem outside clinics.
Andrew Beckwith, president of the conservative Massachusetts Family Institute, was in the audience at the announcement. He said afterward that it was “very disturbing to see some of the highest officials in our state partnering closely with Planned Parenthood, which is a political and ideological entity, as well as an abortion provider.” Beckwith, a lawyer, said he would scrutinize any legislation to see if it meets constitutional requirements.
Coakley, Patrick and abortion rights activists have not crafted specific language to go with their proposals. Patrick said he hopes to see a bill next week. “We will react, and we will react constructively and quickly” to the Supreme Court’s decision, he said.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the buffer zone decision that the state had “too readily forgone” measures that could protect patients and staff without infringing protesters’ First Amendment rights.
Roberts said Massachusetts could pass legislation similar to the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994. It forbids the use of force, intimidation, and violence against patients at reproductive health clinics.
Walz, of Planned Parenthood, said the state already has “mini-FACE” legislation on the books. However, under the law, the state’s attorney general has limited authority to pursue injunctions against protesters.
For now, Walz said, clinics often have to go to the US attorney to seek injunctions.
She said that abortion providers would like to take advantage of their historically strong relationship with the state attorney general’s office and seek assistance there.
The Supreme Court decision also approvingly cited Worcester and Boston ordinances that outlaw obstruction of sidewalks and driveway ramps.
Coakley suggested that the Legislature could enact a law similar to those kinds of local ordinances.
Before passage of the buffer zone law in 2007, protesters would often walk slowly across the entrance to clinic parking lots, in effect blocking access, Walz said. One protester, she added, would use a fireplace poker to shove literature into arriving cars.
Coakley also called on the Legislature to update existing laws that allow police to disperse unruly crowds. Walz said, after the press conference, that the legislation could be tailored to unlawful protests outside reproductive health clinics.
But Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard University, said that any effort to narrowly tailor the legislation could go too far and appear to target antiabortion protesters for the content of their speech.
Crafting “a package that is limited to the abortion situation just raises the suspicion that these are all indirect ways of suppressing antiabortion speech,” he said.
On the whole though, he said, the approach outlined by Coakley and Patrick appears to be in keeping with the court’s dictates.
Coakley appeared before a bank of television cameras Wednesday , flanked by the popular governor and abortion rights providers, with just two months remaining in her bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
But she brushed aside a question after the press conference about whether there was a political component to the appearance. “This is a personal issue for me as a woman who has fought for these rights in college, in law school,” she said.
Planned Parenthood’s political arm has endorsed Coakley for governor. But Walz said the press conference was about providing a single update to reporters, legislators, and activists who have been calling since the Supreme Court’s high-profile buffer zone decision.
After last week’s ruling, a number of other candidates, including Coakley’s Democratic rivals Steve Grossman and Donald Berwick and Republican frontrunner Charlie Baker, voiced concern about continued safe access to clinics. All three urged lawmakers to craft legislation that would protect patients.