On Wednesday, January 22, the United States Supreme Court heard arguments about a 35 foot “Buffer Zone” around a Boston Planned Parenthood Clinic. The lead Plaintiff, Eleanor McCullen, an Operation Rescue Volunteer, claim the “Buffer Zone violates her First Amendment rights.” She wants to counsel the patients going to the clinic to have legal procedures and finds it difficult with the buffer zone.
In 2000, a Colorado 8 foot ‘floating’ zone near abortion clinics was approved by the Supreme Court. Massachusetts followed Colorado’s lead and created a 6 foot buffer zone. In 2007 they expanded it to the present 35 feet. The two questions that the Supreme Court will be deciding are:
First, does the Massachusetts buffer zone law go too far, or is it permissible under the court’s 2000 ruling allowing some buffer zones?
Second, should the court reverse that 2000 decision entirely? The vote in that case was 6-to-3, with the majority ruling that in situations like those at abortion clinics, unwilling listeners have some right to be let alone.
Before we consider those questions, we should realize that there are other situations that have legal buffer zones to keep demonstrators away the people they aim to sway. For example, in New York State there can not politicking within 100 feet of the entrance of a polling facility.
Another example are funeral events. In the 2011 Supreme Court Snyder v Phelps case, they ruled “that speech on a public sidewalk, about a public issue, cannot be liable for a tort of emotional distress, even if the speech is found to be ‘outrageous’ ”. Congress passed the SERVE Act in 2011, and amended it is 2012, deals with military funerals. It permits demonstrations outside a buffer zone 500 feet from a military funeral event, and the residence of a surviving relative of the deceased. Many states, and some New York counties have similar laws with different buffer zone distances. New York State has a 300 foot buffer zone for all religious events. The Village of Penn Yan has a 1000 foot buffer zone for all funeral events, not just military funerals.
The 2000 Colorado abortion clinic ruling was a 6-3 vote. The Supreme Court is now more conservative than in 2000. It is possible that they will do away with buffer zones entirely. Justice Scalia, a conservative and not a friend of the pro-choice movement, was one of the three dissenting votes in 2000. He supported a strong first amendment by saying, “our longstanding commitment to uninhibited, robust and wide-open debate is miraculously replaced by the power of the state to protect an unheard of right to be let alone on the public streets.”
If the Supreme Court follows Scalia’s First Amendment view, and the buffer zones are eliminated, then Planned Parenthood patients do not have the right to be left alone on public sidewalks. The grieving family and friends of a fallen hero, as well as voters should be treated the same way.
If they decide there can be buffer zones, what parameters will be placed on them? Will the distance for abortion clinics, funerals, and voting be the same? If not there should be legal grounds backing their decision.
The Supreme Court’s decision is planned to be announced this summer.