US Supreme Court To Hear Case Against Abortion Buffer Zones

Posted on | June 25, 2013 by Wendy Wright |


Christians in Europe face increasing stigma and government restrictions when they live out their faith. (See this week’s upcoming Friday Fax for more on this.)

In one respect, European countries may have followed the lead of the U.S. when they created buffer zones around abortion clinics, criminalizing pro-life activity and speech within a certain distance surrounding abortuaries.

Or, as we’ve called them, speech-free zones. This imaginary cone of silence applies only to pro-life speech. The pro-lifers are trying to reach women seeking abortions who feel “pressured, alone, unloved, and out of options.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the concept of abortion clinic buffer zones. But that may change.

The Court has agreed to review a decision of the First Circuit upholding Massachusetts’ speech-free law. The state prohibits pro-lifers from coming within 35-feet of abortion clinics.

In 2000, the Supreme Court upheld a Colorado law requiring pro-lifers stay 8 feet away from people entering abortuaries.

In 2007, Massachusetts enlarged its buffer zone from 18 feet to 35 feet. Pro-lifers could counsel or share information if an individual consented – but had to stay 6 feet away.

The petition to the Court explains pro-lifers “try to position themselves near clinics in an attempt to reach this unique audience, at a unique moment, to offer support, information, and practical assistance. They are peaceful, nonconfrontational, and do not obstruct access.”

According to the Life Legal Defense Foundation:

In McCullen v. Coakley, seven Massachusetts residents who engaged in pro-life counseling outside of abortion clinics challenged a state statute creating a thirty-five-foot fixed buffer zone around driveways and entrances of abortion clinics. The law prohibits everyone except clinic patients or employees from “entering or remaining” in the zone. The lower court upheld the buffer zone despite its prejudicial intent and application. Life Legal Defense Foundation filed an amici curiae (friends of the court) brief in the Supreme Court arguing that this buffer zone is unconstitutional.

“We are delighted that the Court is going to weigh in on this clear case of viewpoint discrimination,” stated Dana Cody, Executive Director of Life Legal Defense Foundation. “Activists who make disturbances at military funerals, animal rights protests, and ‘occupy’ demonstrations are not bound by the sort of restrictions applied to peaceful pro-life witnesses who invite women to learn about abortion alternatives,” Cody explained, “It’s a true double standard and an unbelievable violation of First Amendment rights.”

Adding insult to injury, the First Circuit justified singling out pro-life speech for disfavored treatment by analogizing it to sexually oriented businesses. Just as “adult” bookstores and theatres have harmful “secondary effects” that allow cities to impose special zoning restrictions, so too, according to the First Circuit, pro-life sidewalk counseling and picketing have harmful “secondary effects” that governments can mitigate by imposing buffer zones and other restrictions. Cody explained, “In fact, what governments most fear about pro-life speech is not any “secondary effect.” It is that women heading into clinics are hearing the truth about abortion.”

“Just the fact that the Court has taken the case should give pause to San Francisco, Chicago, and other cities that have recently imposed more draconian restrictions on pro-life speech,” Cody said. “We are optimistic that the Court will not only strike down the Massachusetts law, but also revisit some of its own prior precedents that have led lower courts to believe that, as a matter of law, pro-life speech is less deserving of protection.”

Life Legal Defense Foundation represented Walter Hoye in a similar case in Oakland, California. For holding a sign declaring “God loves you and your baby. Let us help you,” near an abortion clinic, the African-American pastor was found guilty of violating a city 8-foot speech-free ban in 2009.

He was sentenced to 30 days in jail, 3 years probation, a $1,000 fine and a $130 restitution fee, and ordered to stay 100 feet away from any abortion center in the city.

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Turtle Bay and Beyond is a blog covering international law, policy and institutions. Our experts - at the UN, European Institutions, and elsewhere - explore an authentic understanding of international law, sovereignty, and the dignity of the human person. We expose those who would seek to impose a radical social vision that is contrary to these principles.

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