Supreme Court Will Determine if Pro-Lifers Have Free Speech at Abortion Clinics

The U.S. Supreme Court today agreed to take a case out of Massachusetts where an abortion law was taken to court because it tramples on the free speech rights of pro-life advocates.

The Massachusetts statute prevents pro-life advocates from exercising their free speech rights to protest and present abortion alternatives information to people outside abortion facilities.

The law creates a 35-foot fixed buffer zone around the driveways and entrances of abortion clinics. That prevents pro-life people from offering literature to or talking to women considering abortions and providing them with better alternatives. The lawsuit was brought by seven residents who regularly engage in pro-life sidewalk counseling outside abortion clinics They filed suit in April 2008, claiming violation of their free speech rights, free association, due process, and equal protection rights granted under the First Amendment.

In February, US District Judge Joseph L. Tauro rejected claims that the law, affecting abortion centers in Boston, Worcester, and Springfield, infringed on First Amendment rights. In his ruling, he said the law “as applied is a valid regulation of the time, place, and manner of Plaintiffs’ speech.”

“From the evidence,” Tauro wrote, “it is clear that the Act, as applied at each of the challenged [reproductive health care facilities] leaves open ample adequate alternative means of communication.”

Attorney General Martha Coakley, an abortion advocate who defended the law, was happy with the ruling. She said at the time: “We are pleased that the court has upheld the Commonwealth’s buffer zone law, which enhances public safety and access to reproductive health care facilities, while preserving freedom of expression. The court agreed that the buffer zone leaves open ample opportunities for communication and civil engagement on the public ways outside the facilities.”

In August 2008, Tauro ruled on the first challenge, upholding the law itself. The plaintiffs appealed and the First US Circuit Court of Appeals also upheld it. The US Supreme Court declined to take up the case at that time. Tauro held a bench trial in August 2011 on the challenge to the law as applied.

Anne Fox of Massachusetts Citizens for Life previously told LifeNews, “Unfortunately, it has become common in this country for laws to apply differently when they have to do with abortion. The idea that people cannot express their views within a 35 foot radius – i.e. a circle with a 70 foot diameter – of an abortion facility is un-American. It is also ludicrous. Given the huge size of the zone, people have been approached by the police for engaging in activities on their own properties, which happen to be next door to abortion facilities. This happened recently in Worcester,” she said.

Fox added, “Courts have struck down less onerous laws in other states because they infringe on the First Amendment rights of U. S. citizens. We feel certain that higher courts will strike down the Massachusetts ‘Buffer Zone’”

The justices will hear arguments in the case and rule in their 2013-14 term, which starts in October. The case is McCullen v. Coakley, 12-1168.

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