Fixes Proposed for Buffer Zone Ruling

The Boston Globe reports this week on some of the first proposed legislative responses out of Massachusetts after last week’s disappointing Supreme Court ruling that struck down the state’s current buffer zone law barring protestors from being within 35 feet of reproductive health clinics.

At a State House press conference, Governor Deval Patrick and Attorney-General Martha Coakley have proposed legislation that would, according to the Globe, “give police greater authority to break up unruly crowds and give the attorney general greater leeway to pursue injunctions against anti-abortion protesters at the clinics.” They also mentioned possible legal fixes that would give the attorney general more authority to fine and block individual protestors from clinics as well protect sidewalk and driveway access.

The Supreme Court’s decision allowed room for Massachusetts to pass laws similar to the 1994 Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act which prohibits intimidation and violence against patients at abortion clinics. Although specific language has not yet been crafted for such legislation, Governor Patrick affirms that Massachusetts lawmakers “will react constructively and quickly” to the Court’s ruling.

As the Globe piece points out, lawmakers face a challenge of crafting legislation that is narrow enough to specifically address the issue of clinic safety while at the same time avoiding infringing on the protestors’ First Amendment rights as laid out in Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion in the buffer zone decision. 

The article references concern around this issue as articulated by Harvard constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe, who says that:

“any effort to narrowly tailor the legislation could go too far and appear to target antiabortion protesters for the content of their speech.

Crafting ‘a package that is limited to the abortion situation just raises the suspicion that these are all indirect ways of suppressing antiabortion speech.’”

Joining Patrick and Coakley at the press conference was Martha Walz, chief executive of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, who proposed an additional fix that would replicate a NYC ordinance that forbids following or harassing anyone within 15 feet of an abortion clinic. The Supreme Court cited this ordinance approvingly in last week’s decision.