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Abortion Clinic Buffer Zone Violates First Amendment: Supreme Court

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled on Thursday that a Massachusetts law setting a 35-foot protest-free zone outside abortion clinics violates the First Amendment.
WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court unanimously ruled on Thursday that a Massachusetts law setting a 35-foot protest-free zone outside abortion clinics violates the First Amendment.

The court in the past has allowed for buffer zones around facilities like health clinics, but Chief Justice John Roberts noted that the Massachusetts law restricts access to sidewalks and other public spaces -- "places that have traditionally been open for speech activities and that the Court has accordingly labeled 'traditional public fora.'"

The government is allowed to limit speech in public spaces, so long as there is a significant interest in doing so, and as long as the limits are narrowly tailored and leave open alternative channels for speech. The Massachusetts law did not meet the latter part of those standards, Roberts wrote.

"The buffer zones serve the Commonwealth's legitimate interests in maintaining public safety on streets and sidewalks and in preserving access to adjacent reproductive healthcare facilities," he wrote. "At the same time, however, they impose serious burdens on petitioners' speech, depriving them of their two primary methods of communicating with arriving patients: close, personal conversations and distribution of literature."

Moreover, Roberts wrote, the state could have enacted other laws that protect abortion clinic patients without restricting freedom of speech to that extent. "The Commonwealth has not shown that it seriously undertook to address these various problems with the less intrusive tools readily available to it," the justice wrote.



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