Massachusetts Abortion Protest Law Doesn’t Limit Free Speech, Court Rules
by Steven Ertelt
July 14, 2009
Boston, MA (LifeNews.com) — The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit issued a decision on Wednesday claiming a new buffer zone doesn’t unconstitutionally violate the free speech rights of pro-life protestors and sidewalk counselors. The 35-foot buffer zone around abortion businesses came under suit from pro-life groups.
Attorneys with the Alliance Defense Fund filed a lawsuit in federal court in January 2008 saying the law essentially eliminates free speech rights within the zone by restricting pro-life advocates from sharing their message with people entering.
The law updated a 2000 statute that established a floating buffer zone, which police and abortion centers said was difficult to enforce.
U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro rejected the pro-life lawsuit in August 2008 that the law did not regulate speech but only the location where the speech could occur — and the appeals court upheld that decision last week.
The appeals court said the 2007 law responded to "repeated incidents involving violence and other unduly aggressive behaviors in the vicinity of reproductive health care facilities" and "represents a permissible response by the Massachusetts Legislature to what it reasonably perceived as a significant threat to public safety."
The court also said that the law was "content-neutral," as it applies to all protesters regardless of their viewpoints.
Tim Chandler, legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, responded to the ruling and told the Boston Globe pro-life advocates "shouldn’t be penalized for expressing their beliefs."
He said ADF and the pro-life advocates are evaluating the "next legal step," which would likely involve appealing the decision to the Supreme Court.
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick signed the measure creating the zone into law on November 13, 2007.
Anyone charged with violating the ordinance would face a fine of up to $500 and three months in jail. Repeat offenders face fines of up to $5,000 and 2 1/2 years in prison.
ADF attorneys filed suit on behalf of several pro-life advocates whose ability to communicate peacefully with people was compromised by the law.
The group said that, in some instances, the new law leaves only about one foot of public sidewalk open to free speech, making it virtually impossible to engage in reasoned conversation.
According to the pro-life advocates filing suit, more than 100 women have changed their minds about having an abortion after hearing their message.
The buffer zone is so limiting that even the Boston Globe printed an editorial against it.
"Other than political pandering, there seems to be little cause for changing the law so that the constitutional right to free speech falls somewhere below the right of clinic workers and patients to come and go without being yelled at," it said. "This is a solution in search of a problem."
The newspaper isn’t alone in opposing the bill. The measure has also drawn opposition from the ACLU of Massachusetts.
The Alliance Defense Fund filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, Boston Division and the case is McCullen v. Coakley.
Related web sites:
Alliance Defense Fund – https://www.telladf.org
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