For anyone having trouble understanding why the Massachusetts law requiring a 35-foot "buffer zone" at abortion clinics is so offensive to the First Amendment, there was a moment during the oral arguments in McCullen v. Coakley — the Supreme Court case challenging the law — that crystallized the issue perfectly.
Massachusetts officials have always justified the 2007 buffer law as a narrow, impartial response to the problem of obstruction, disorder, and intimidation of women seeking abortions. That concern is understandably taken seriously in the state where John Salvi murdered two employees of Planned Parenthood clinics in 1994.
But federal and state statutes already make it illegal to interfere with anyone's access to an abortion clinic, let alone to terrorize or harass women with violence or the threat of violence. No one disputes the constitutionality of those statutes, just as no one challenges Section (e) of the Bay State's buffer-zone law, which allows anyone who "knowingly obstructs, detains, hinders, impedes or blocks another person's entry to or exit from a reproductive health care facility" to be punished with fines and prison.
It is only the 35-foot exclusion zone that raises serious free-speech concerns.
Public buffer zones aren't unknown in American life — courts have upheld speech and protest restrictions around funerals, political conventions, and polling places. Even the Supreme Court plaza is off-limits to demonstrators and protests. But such "time, place, and manner" regulations must be scrupulously neutral. What pro-life advocates and even pro-choice civil libertarians have maintained all along is that this buffer zone isn't.
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