[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Thursday that a Massachusetts law creating a 35-foot protester-free buffer zone around the entrance or driveway of an abortion clinic is unconstitutional. In McCullen v. Coakley [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] the court considered the questions of whether the buffer zone, created by the Reproductive Health Care Facilities Act [text], violated the First Amendment [text] to the US Constitution, which guarantees the freedom of speech and the freedom to protest. Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the opinion for a unanimous court:
Petitioners wish to converse with their fellow citizens about an important subject on the public streets and sidewalks—sites that have hosted discussions about the issues of the day throughout history. Respondents assert undeniably significant interests in maintaining public safety on those same streets and sidewalks, as well as in preserving access to adjacent healthcare facilities. But here the Commonwealth has pursued those interests by the extreme step of closing a substantial portion of a traditional public forum to all speakers. It has done so without seriously addressing the problem through alternatives that leave the forum open for its time-honored purposes.The Commonwealth may not do that consistent with the First Amendment.
Justice Antonin Scalia filed a concurring opinion joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas. Justice Samuel Alito also filed a concurring opinion, noting that he also believes that the law is discriminatory.
The court heard arguments in this case in January after it granted certiorari [JURIST reports] last June. The complaint was brought by seven people who, in some cases, wanted to counsel some of the patients before they got an abortion and tell them about abortion alternatives. Because of the 35-foot buffer zone, that was not possible. The reaction from advocacy groups has been varied. The American Civil Liberties Union [advocacy website] said in a press release that while it is important that freedom of speech be preserved, the safety of those entering abortion clinics is important as well. This ruling reversed a decision [JURIST report] by the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit [official website], which ruled that the Reproductive Heath Care Facilities Act was constitutional.