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Supreme Court Strikes Down Buffer Zones For Abortion Clinic Protests

Laura Bassett 

The Supreme Court ruled on McCullen v. Coakley Thursday, striking down a Massachusetts law requiring protesters to stay at least 35 feet from an abortion clinic's entrance and walkways.

In a unanimous opinion, the court held that such buffer zones violate First Amendment free speech rights.

Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the court. "It is no accident that public streets and sidewalks have developed as venues for the exchange of ideas," Roberts said. "Even today, they remain one of the few places where a speaker can be confident that he is not simply preaching to the choir. With respect to other means of communication, an individual confronted with an uncomfortable message can always turn the page, change the channel, or leave the Web site."

"Thus, even though the Act says nothing about speech on its face, there is no doubt—and respondents do not dis­pute—that it restricts access to traditional public fora and is therefore subject to First Amendment scrutiny," Roberts said.

Eleanor McCullen, the lead plaintiff in the case, is a member of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue who argued the buffer zone violates her First Amendment right to free speech. "It's America," she told NPR earlier this year. "I should be able to walk and talk gently, lovingly, anywhere with anybody."

But abortion clinic escorts, owners and patient advocates claim the protesters that surround clinics on a daily basis and try to follow patients up to the door are anything but gentle. Roxanne Sutocky, a patient advocate at an abortion clinic in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, told The Huffington Post that she has had to coach numerous terrified patients through their walk past the protesters into the clinic.

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Background Photo Credit: Kasia Broussalian © 2015