The New York Times is reporting that the decision was handed down in a case brought against a Massachusetts law that barred pro-life activities with 35 feet of the entrance to an abortion clinic. The Justices were unanimous in their decision that the law violates the U.S. Constitution.
"Petitioners wish to converse with their fellow citizens about an important subject on the public streets and sidewalks — sites that have hosted discussions about the issues of the day throughout history," Roberts wrote. Though the state has an interest in public safety, it "pursued those interests by the extreme step of closing a substantial portion of a traditional public forum to all speakers."
Even though the Court upheld an eight foot buffer zone in Colorado in 2000, the Massachusetts law went too far - literally - with even the liberal female Justice Elena Kagan questioning attorneys during oral arguments in January, saying "that's a lot of space."
Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the liberal faction of the Court in issuing a narrower ruling than the other Justices who would have preferred a more sweeping ruling which would have struck down the ban on the grounds that it targets a specific point of view.
For instance, in a separate opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia criticized the majority opinion for perpetuating “this court’s practice of giving abortion-rights advocates a pass when it comes to suppressing the free-speech rights of their opponents.”
As a result, Scalia said state and local governments around the country would continue to be able to “restrict antiabortion speech without fear of rigorous constitutional review.”
But the ruling was still a victory.
Americans United for Life (AUL) president and CEO, Dr. Charmaine Yoest, called the Massachusetts law "a brazen affront to the First Amendment" which the Supreme Court "rightly rejected."
AUL filed two amicus briefs in the case in which they pointed out that this discriminatory “no-enter zone” only targeted those opposed to abortion and permitted police to arrest and charge any person engaged in pro-life advocacy. Prohibited conduct under the law included speaking, praying, wearing t-shirts, hats, or buttons, displaying signs, leafleting, and making consented approaches with women or others entering the abortion clinic.
The law effectively sought to prohibit all methods of communicating a pro-life message on public sidewalks—a venue which the Supreme Court has called “a prototypical public forum” where the First Amendment is “at its most protected.”
“The Massachusetts law impermissibly discriminated against and censored pro-life Americans. The pro-abortion position could be represented in the zone, while the pro-life view point was strictly prohibited under threat of criminal sanctions,” Dr. Yoest noted.
Pro-life groups are cheering the decision.
"Today's ruling is a great vindication of sidewalk counseling," declared Eric Scheidler, Executive Director of the Pro-Life Action League. "The justices in the majority recognize that our compassionate pro-life outreach to mothers outside abortion clinics deserves the protection of the First Amendment."
But all agree that more work still needs to be done.
"Confusing, erratically enforced bubble zone laws remain on the books in many places," Scheidler remarked. "Even with today's victory, freedom of speech by pro-life advocates is not yet fully protected."
Scheidler and his legal team are eager to build on today's precedent. Their goal is to eradicate all laws prohibiting pro-life speech outside of abortion clinics.
Pro-abortion groups such as Planned Parenthood expressed dismay by the ruling.
“This decision shows a troubling level of disregard for American women, who should be able to make carefully considered, private medical decisions without running a gantlet of harassing and threatening protesters,” said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Mark Rienzi, the attorney who represented the protesters at the Supreme Court, sees it much differently.
“The government cannot reserve its public sidewalks for Planned Parenthood, as if their message is the only one women should be allowed to hear. Today’s decision confirms that the First Amendment is for everyone, and that the government cannot silence peaceful speakers.”
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