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Supreme Court declines to rule on abortion clinic layered protest zones

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] on Monday declined to review [order list; PDF] a case involving a Massachusetts law [text] prohibiting people from protesting directly outside of abortion [JURIST news archive] clinics. Lawyers for the petitioners, parties "who regularly engage in pro-life counseling" outside clinics, were appealing a July ruling [opinion, PDF; JURIST report] by the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit [official website], which held that the law, which creates a 35-foot buffer zone around entrances and exits of reproductive health clinics, was a reasonable response to a significant threat to public safety. Opponents of the law say that it violates freedom of speech [AP report] while supporters say that it is necessary to ensure public safety and access to abortion clinics. The justices did not comment on the reason for denying certiorari, but the court may have found it unnecessary to review the law, as the Court upheld a lower court injunction that included several similar restrictions in 1994 in Madsen v. Women's Health Center [Oyez backgrounder].

Threats against abortion clinics and employees have been a longstanding concern, and the US courts of appeal have come to differing conclusions on the constitutionality of "buffer zone" laws meant to protect clinic patients and employees. In November, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit [official website] struck down [JURIST report] a City of Pittsburgh ordinance [text, PDF] that created a layered zone structure to prevent protesters from gathering outside abortion facilities. US Attorney General Eric Holder enlisted the US Marshall Service [official websites] last June to increase protection [JURIST report] for at-risk people and facilities following the shooting of abortion doctor George Tiller [BBC profile]. Last year, the Ninth Circuit ruled [JURIST report] that the First Amendment protected an anti-abortion group's right to display graphic pictures of early-term aborted fetuses outside of a California middle school.

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