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U.S. Supreme Court to Review Legality of Massachusetts’s Abortion Buffer Zone Law

posted Jan 15, 2014, 12:32 PM by Helen Partlow

In 2007, the Massachusetts Abortion Buffer Zone Law came into effect.  It permits a yellow line to be painted on the ground 35 feet away from any abortion clinic, indicating where people cannot cross while expressing their views on abortion.  The purpose is to protect those entering the building, as there have been instances where protesters may try to physically harm those that what to gain access to the building.

But does it go too far in limiting our First Amendment rights?

Among other rights, the First Amendment to the Constitution protects people’s freedom of assembly and freedom of speech.  The freedom of assembly essentially allows people to gather for a like-cause in a public place.  Generally, this is viewed as protesting.

Supporters of these types of buffer zone laws liken them to the zones around voting areas where people cannot protest.  They claim it is not about the message, but about safety.  While people that do not support this law are claiming that it is a violation of their freedom of speech and assembly.

The government can restrict these freedoms in order to protect public safety, which is of a higher concern than the freedom itself.  The quickest way to restrict these freedoms is through violence.  There must be “imminent lawless action” in order to inflict restrictions.  (SeeBrandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969).  If what the speaker is saying is intended to cause and is likely to cause “imminent lawless action,” then it can be punished and the freedom is restricted.

The last time the Supreme Court had this particular issue of a protest free buffer zone in front of an abortion clinic was in 2000.  This particular law originated in Colorado and the Court decided to uphold the law, permitting the buffer zone.

While no one has been prosecuted under the 2007 Massachusetts law, it has had its fair share of negative feedback from free speech and assembly advocates due to its restrictive nature.  However, those who work at these clinics have found that entering and exiting the building has been safer and they feel more secure knowing that this barrier is there.  Physically attacking someone is already illegal.  Thus, this law has more of an effect on the freedom of speech and assembly but may still act as a deterrent to those that might otherwise act in these illegal manners.

Today, the Court will begin to address these issues and should see in the coming months how they will respond.

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About the Author
Attorney Nicholas J. LaFountain has extensive experience litigating and negotiating civil disputes of many types. He has been successfully representing clients in the courtroom since 2004.