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.