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U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down Mass. Abortion Buffer Zone Law

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WASHINGTON (CBS/AP) – The United States Supreme Court struck down the Massachusetts buffer zone law that excluded protesters outside abortion clinics.

Read: The Decision

The unanimous decision released Thursday morning overturns the state law setting a 35-foot protest-free zone outside the clinics, saying it violates the First Amendment rights of protesters.

‘ONCE A WEEK IN ONE CITY AT ONE CLINIC’

Chief Justice John Roberts said authorities have less intrusive ways to deal with problems outside clinics and noted that most of the problems reported by police and the clinics occurred outside one Planned Parenthood facility in Boston, and only on Saturdays when the largest crowds typically gather.

“For a problem shown to arise only once a week in one city at one clinic, creating 35-foot buffer zones at every clinic across the Commonwealth is hardly a narrowly tailored solution,” Roberts said.

The buffer zone in yellow outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston. (WBZ-TV)

The buffer zone in yellow outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston. (WBZ-TV)

While the court was unanimous in the overall outcome, Roberts joined with the four liberal justices to strike down the buffer zone on narrower grounds than the other more conservative justices wanted. In a separate opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia criticized Roberts’ opinion for carrying forward “this court’s practice of giving abortion-rights advocates a pass when it comes to suppressing the free-speech rights of their opponents.”

Scalia said state and local governments around the country would continue to be able to “restrict antiabortion speech without fear of rigorous constitutional review.”

Still, abortion rights advocates lamented the decision and said it compromised the safety of women seeking abortions.

“This decision shows a troubling level of disregard for American women, who should be able to make carefully considered, private medical decisions without running a gantlet of harassing and threatening protesters,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Mark Rienzi, who represented the protesters at the Supreme Court, said, “The government cannot reserve its public sidewalks for Planned Parenthood, as if their message is the only one women should be allowed to hear. Today’s decision confirms that the First Amendment is for everyone, and that the government cannot silence peaceful speakers.”

COAKLEY’S REACTION

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley released this statement Thursday afternoon about the ruling:

“With today’s decision, our work begins again. We are not going to give up our fight to make sure women have safe access to reproductive health care. We will utilize all of the tools we have available to protect everyone from harassment, threats, and physical obstruction. I will work with the Governor, Legislature and advocates to explore additional legislative tools that also meet the court’s requirements.”

CASE HISTORY

Liberal and conservative justices alike expressed misgivings about the law during arguments at the high court back in January.

They questioned the size of the zone and whether the state could find less restrictive ways of ensuring patient access and safety.

No one has been prosecuted under the 2007 law, which state officials and clinic employees have said has resulted in less congestion outside the clinics.

Painted semicircles outside Planned Parenthood clinics in Boston, Springfield and Worcester mark the spot beyond which abortion opponents are free to protest and try to persuade women not to end their pregnancies. Inside the line, protesters and supporters alike risk arrest.

Eleanor McCullen, 77, and other protesters at those clinics sued the state over its 2007 law setting up the buffer zone, saying it limits their ability to encounter patients arriving for care.

Federal courts in Massachusetts have upheld the law as a reasonable imposition on protesters’ rights.

BEFORE 2007

Before 2007, a floating buffer zone kept protesters from approaching unwilling listeners any closer than 6 feet if they were within 18 feet of the clinic. The floating zone was modeled after a Colorado law that the Supreme Court has upheld. That decision was not called into question in Thursday’s ruling.

Clinic officials said they are most concerned about safety because of past incidents of violence. In 1994, a gunman killed two receptionists and wounded five employees and volunteers at a Planned Parenthood facility and another abortion clinic in nearby Brookline.

(TM and © Copyright 2014 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2014 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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