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The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly allowed "buffer zones" that keep abortion protesters from approaching medical facility entrances. So the court surprised many observers when it agreed to hear a challenge to a Massachusetts "buffer zone" law on January 15.
Mark Rienzi, lead counsel for the pro-life plaintiffs, argues that the state's 2007 law creating a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics and other health-care facilities exceeds the high court's ruling.
In its 2000 decision Hill v. Colorado, the Supreme Court upheld Colorado's so-called "bubble law" by a 6-to-3 vote. The law established a 100-foot zone in front of medical facilities and prohibited protesters from walking within an "8-foot bubble" of people.
"The Court allowed the restriction because the law had several key safeguards, all of which have been eliminated by the Massachusetts law," said Rienzi, a Catholic University of America law professor.
He declared the Massachusetts law "inescapably viewpoint-based"—and thus a violation of free speech—because it applies "only when and where abortion is allowed." It also lets staff promote abortion to potential patients in the buffer zone.
"These [laws] are being passed for one purpose: to shut down the speech of one opinion, which should be enough for the Supreme Court to reject them," said Brian Gibson, executive director of Pro-Life Action Ministries.
But in upholding the Massachusetts law a year ago, an appeals court disagreed, saying the free speech protections were similar to those in Hill.
In general, the Hill ruling had little effect on pro-life activism, said Michael New, a University of Michigan–Dearborn political scientist. Along with a handful of cities, just three states—Colorado, Massachusetts, and Montana—have buffer zones.
That's largely because six years earlier, the 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic ...