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Bill would tighten up buffer zone rules

Measure is in response to June decision by Supreme Court

An abortion protester held a sign and a rosary as he stood on the former buffer zone line in front of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston. REUTERS/Dominick Reuter

Three weeks after the Supreme Court struck down the Massachusetts buffer zone law, the state’s top lawmakers are backing legislation designed to curb obstruction and harassment outside abortion clinics.

The bill would give police the power to disperse a gathering of protesters who impede access to a clinic, requiring them to remain at least 25 feet from the facility for up to eight hours.

It would also give the attorney general the authority to seek fines and compensatory damages from unlawful protesters.

The bill hews closely to an approach laid out by Attorney General Martha Coakley and Governor Deval Patrick at a July 1 State House news conference.


“What we have done is enhance ways in which we provide protection for women . . . to make sure that they are safe and that they feel safe, that they will not be intimidated, harassed, or otherwise interfered with,” said Coakley, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor.

Lawmakers are hoping to push the legislation through before the end of the legislative session July 31.

Speedy passage appears likely, with Senate President Therese Murray, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and Patrick all declaring support for the legislation.

The buffer zone law, passed in 2007, barred protesters within 35 feet of abortion clinics.

But the Supreme Court ruled 9 to 0 that it was an unconstitutional infringement on protesters’ free speech rights.

Just hours after the decision came down, legislative leaders were signaling that they would beef up laws designed to curb intimidation outside clinics.

But antiabortion protesters voiced strong opposition to any new legislation.

Massachusetts Citizens for Life paid for two large billboards at the corner of Cambridge and Bowdoin streets in downtown Boston, one of them reading “No new buffer zones! Protect free speech.”

Eva Murphy, legislative director for the group, said Monday night that she had not seen the legislation.


But she said the bill, as described by a reporter, “seems unnecessary” given that there are already laws on the books against violence and intimidation.

Under the buffer zone law, protesters had to stand behind a 35-foot arc painted on the ground outside abortion clinics.

The new legislation would replace it with a 25-foot radius that would apply only to those dispersed by police after impeding access to a clinic entrance or driveway.

Protesters would have to remain behind the arc for the next eight hours or until the clinic closes for the day, whichever comes first.

A protester who fails to comply with a dispersal order would be punishable by a fine of up to $500 and up to three months in jail. A subsequent offense would mean a fine of up to $5,000 and as much as five years in jail.

The legislation, if approved, would also levy fines and jail time on anyone who “by force, physical act, or threat of force” tries to injure or intimidate anyone arriving at or leaving a clinic.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg
. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe,

Correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article said the state Supreme Judicial Court handed down the buffer zone ruling. It was the US Supreme Court.