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Supreme Court hints it could reject abortion clinic buffer zones


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la-na-nn-supreme-court-abortion-buffer-zone-20140115,0,309066.story#axzz2qPTT3nSELA Times:

David G. Savage

January 15, 2014


WASHINGTON — Supreme Court justices signaled Wednesday they are inclined to strike down a Massachusetts law that sets a 35-foot buffer zone outside abortion clinics.


Anti-abortion activists called the law a violation of free speech that prohibits “peaceful conversation on a public sidewalk,” said Mark Rienzi, an attorney representing self-described “sidewalk counselors,” who stand outside clinic entrances and urge women seeking to end their pregnancies to change their minds. The case was filed by Eleanor McCullen, 77, of Boston.


An attorney for Massachusetts and the Obama administration defended the law as a reasonable way to deal with the violence and disruptions that have been seen at abortion clinics in the Boston area. They said abortion opponents are free to speak to persons who are walking down the street toward the clinic, but the law prevents them from getting close to the entrance.







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Argument recap: Buffer zones? Maybe yes, but how big?

Lyle Denniston

Wed, January 15th, 2014 1:02 pm



Between the complete silence of Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., on the issue on Wednesday and the very active commentary and questioning of Justice Elena Kagan seems to lie the fate of state laws that seek to protect abortion clinics, their patients, and their staffs. It seemed apparent, in a new buffer zone case from Massachusetts, that the Chief Justice holds the key vote on how far such zones are likely to be restricted, but that Kagan may help provide some cover for a decisive ruling that mandated narrower zones.




The three dissenters from the Courts last major ruling in favor of abortion clinic buffer zones left no doubt in the hearing on McCullen v. Coakley that they have not changed their minds, and it appeared more than likely that Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., will join their opposition. If the Chief Justice were also to become an ally, buffer zones that are not confined explicitly to stopping violence or actual physical obstruction may well be doomed altogether on strict First Amendment principles.




Justice Stephen G. Breyer (who was in the majority for the 2000 decision) kept pressing throughout Wednesdays hearing for the evidence of violence and disorderly conduct that had led the Massachusetts legislature to enact the buffer zone limit. But Justice Scalia and some other Justices who seemed to share his views pointed out that there has never been a prosecution under the law for that kind of conduct outside a clinic.


By the end of Wednesdays hearing, it was hard to see how the Court with a recent string of decisions supporting broad rights of free expression, in situations ranging from funeral protests to violent video games would put together a majority to uphold a law that its lawyer repeatedly said was all about the use of public sidewalks as a forum for exchanging ideas.



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