Thirteen years ago, the Supreme Court upheld a Colorado law that created an 8-foot buffer zone around any person who didn’t want to be approached while entering an abortion center. Justice Anthony Kennedy dissented from that ruling, saying the law was a direct violation of free speech.
That was then, and now a very different court is considering a challenge to an even broader buffer zone in McCullen v. Coakley. The 2007 Massachusetts law at issue created a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion centers for anyone but employees and clients, regardless of whether clients wanted to be approached. Supporters of the law say it helps prevent pro-life protestors from obstructing the entrance. But Massachusetts and the federal government already have various laws that forbid obstructing entrances to medical facilities.
“An injunction against groups and individuals who have interfered with access, keeping them back, I think that’s perfectly permissible,” said Mark Rienzi, the lawyer for pro-life sidewalk counselor Eleanor McCullen, in arguments Wednesday.
A majority of the court seemed leery about Massachusetts’ law. Even liberal Justice Elena Kagan expressed skepticism about the 35-foot rule. “You know, 35 feet is a ways,” she said. “It’s from this bench to the end of the court.” Later in the arguments she added, “I guess I’m a little bit hung up on why you need so much space.”
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