The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the free speech rights of abortion opponents Thursday by striking down a Massachusetts law that kept protesters at least 35 feet away from that state’s clinics.
The unanimous ruling likely will have limited impact on protests at Oklahoma’s three licensed abortion clinics in Norman, Warr Acres and Tulsa. Oklahoma has no such restrictions regulating speech near clinics. Oklahoma protesters stay off private property and keep to public sidewalks, an area the Supreme Court has held is a free-speech zone. Violators are subject to trespassing or disorderly conduct tickets.
Less clear is how Thursday’s 9-0 ruling will affect buffer zones and public protest zones elsewhere — such as at funeral services, political conventions and polling places.
In 2011, the Oklahoma Legislature passed a law barring protesters from coming within 1,000 feet of a soldier’s funeral two hours before or after each service.
The ruling does not eliminate all buffer zones, said Joseph Thai, a constitutional scholar and professor at the University of Oklahoma. Instead, Thai said the court found that buffer zones in front of abortion clinics, schools, or other potential confrontation spots for protesters can only be big enough to ensure access and preserve public safety.
“It cannot go much further without violating the First Amendment,” Thai said.
McCullen v. Coakley
In Thursday’s ruling, the court reviewed a challenge of a Massachusetts law that established a 35-foot protest-free zone outside of that state’s reproductive health centers. Some states have adopted similar laws designed to ensure women safe access to services and prevent confrontations with protesters.
In the Massachusetts case, McCullen v. Coakley, opponents of the buffer zone law argued it violated free speech and prevented quiet conversation on a public sidewalk. Proponents defended the measure as a reasonable way to deal with violence and disruptions seen at clinics in the Boston area and elsewhere.
Advocates of the Massachusetts law noted that it was enacted after decades of violent acts aimed at abortion providers, their staffs and patients.
Hundreds of facilities have been bombed, burned and blockaded and physicians and workers have been killed and maimed, according to a brief filed jointly in the case by Planned Parenthood Federation of America and Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts.
From 1977 through 2012, abortion providers in the U.S. and Canada suffered eight killings, 17 attempted killings, 42 bombings and hundreds of assaults, stalking incidents and death threats, according to the National Abortion Federation, a professional organization of abortion practitioners.
But opponents argued that limiting the speech of anti-abortion forces is not legal, and that the Massachusetts law should be repealed to prevent the further erosion of First Amendment protections for public speech.
Even though Oklahoma has no law regulating buffer zones outside of abortion clinics, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt said the state joined in asking the Supreme Court to reject the Massachusetts law. In a statement, Pruitt lauded the decision.
“The Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling today is a victory for the right of every American to freely express their beliefs and opinions,” he said.
Oklahoma buffer zones
The 2011 Oklahoma measure regarding buffer zones at soldier funerals was aimed at protecting grieving Oklahoma families from anti-gay protests mounted by members of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan. The church group’s protests at funerals and other high-profile Oklahoma events drew large counter-protests and, at times, sparked heated confrontations.
Thursday’s ruling “puts those buffer zones in question,” Thai said.
Toby Harmon, of Norman, frequently protests outside of Oklahoma abortion clinics carrying signs with photographs of aborted fetuses. The protests are part of his work with the group The Abolitionist Society of Norman Oklahoma. He said he hoped the ruling would set a precedent for other states to strike down any future measures aimed at setting up protest buffer zones around abortion clinics. He said little will change.
“This will not change the way we engage men and women outside the child-sacrifice centers since it does not hinder our presence there in any way,” he said.