Free Speech v. Buffer Zone in Abortion Clinic Case

By:  Jack Kenny
Free Speech v. Buffer Zone in Abortion Clinic Case

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear arguments for and against a Massachusetts law that forbids abortion opponents from entering a 35-foot buffer zone in front of entrances to facilities where abortions are performed.

The law, aimed at preventing conflicts among abortion protestors or counselors and clients and escorts at abortion clinics, is being contested by Eleanor McCullen (shown in photo), who regularly stands outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston and attempts to persuade young women entering the site against having an abortion. McCullen and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty contend the ban on approaching and speaking to people within the buffer zone is an unconstitutional violation of the free speech rights protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States. Martha Coakley, the Massachusetts attorney general and the defendant named in the suit, claims the current law strikes the right balance among legitimate, but competing interests.

"This law is access balanced with speech balanced with public safety," Coakley told the New York Times. "It has worked extremely well." McCullen, 77, told the Times that the semi-circular yellow line, within which all contact and communication with people approaching the clinic is forbidden, frustrates her efforts to speak to women entering the clinic grounds. In a 2011 deposition, McCullen said she has been able to persuade more than 80 women not to have an abortion even after the buffer zone was imposed, but said the 2007 law has caused her to miss four to five opportunities to speak with clinic-bound women on each day that she maintains her twice-weekly vigil. 

The buffer zone is on a public sidewalk where pedestrians going elsewhere may freely pass. People going into or coming from the clinic are obviously allowed to go through the zone, as are clinic employees and volunteer escorts who are likely to speak to and encourage the women they accompany into the clinic to go through with whatever planning and procedures they are seeking, including abortion. That makes the restriction on speech content-based, argues Becket Fund's Mark L. Rienzi, who is representing McCullen and other protestors and sidewalk counselors.

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Photo of Eleanor McCullen: AP Images

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