Evidence that misery doesn't love company is common at pro-life gatherings, where women holding poignant signs — "I Regret My Abortion" — urge others not to make a mistake that haunts them.
As the US Supreme Court prepares to hear a constitutional challenge to the Massachusetts abortion-clinic "buffer zone" law this month, the justices are being reminded that the First Amendment protects more than just a speaker's right to express ideas. It also protects a listener's freedom to hear those ideas. Stifling that freedom near abortion clinics can mean — as 12 women argue, from personal experience, in a compelling friend-of-the-court brief prepared by Carrie Severino of the Judicial Education Project — that individuals in a crisis pregnancy are denied essential information at the moment they may need it most.
There is nothing eccentric about the idea that the Constitution shields the right to receive information. "The dissemination of ideas can accomplish nothing if otherwise willing addressees are not free to receive and consider them," wrote Justice William Brennan in 1965. "It would be a barren marketplace of ideas that had only sellers and no buyers."
But the practical effect of the Massachusetts law, which forces pro-life protesters, advocates, and counselors to stay at least 35 feet away from the entrance to any abortion clinic, is to make a reasonable exchange of ideas extremely difficult, if not impossible. The law, signed by Governor Deval Patrick in 2007, makes no allowance for peaceful or quiet protest. It doesn't permit an individual to simply stand in silence, holding a sign or offering pamphlets. It forbids approaching even a willing listener who would like to hear — who might be desperate to hear — about a realistic alternative to abortion. The 35-foot boundary is marked with paint, and anyone who steps over it can be arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced to as much as 2½ years in prison.
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