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Supreme Court Strikes Down Massachusetts Law Curbing Abortion Protesters

The decision casts a legal cloud over similar provisions in 15 other states.
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a Massachusetts law requiring protesters to stay at least 35 feet from the entrances to clinics that provide abortions, a decision that cast a legal cloud over similar provisions in other states.

The court found that Massachusetts had violated the First Amendment and shut off a traditional public forum. It held that the state had not tried less intrusive methods to address its concerns.

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The law was challenged by opponents who said they wanted to talk to women entering the clinics about alternatives to abortion.

“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,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court.

“In short, given the vital First Amendment in­terests at stake, it is not enough for Massachusetts simply to say that other approaches have not worked,” Roberts wrote.

In a statement, the National Organization for Women condemned the court’s “cavalier disregard for the physical safety — the lives, even — of women seeking abortion care and the health care providers who serve them.”

The organization said the court had dismissed the fact that Massachusetts passed its law after a gunman entered two clinics on the same street in a Boston suburb in 1994 and opened fire, killing two receptionists and wounding five other people.

The National Right to Life Committee did not immediately return a request for comment.

Martin Walsh, the mayor of Boston, said he was disappointed. He said the law had been passed with the support of law enforcement officials who wanted to ensure public safety and protect clinic patients and staff.

“A woman seeking reproductive health care should not be harassed, judged or shamed,” he said in a statement. “The buffer zone allows protection from this harassment while also still allowing protesters to exercise their first amendment rights.”

The justices left intact a 2000 ruling allowing a different restriction, so-called “bubble zones,” in which protesters have to stay at least 8 feet away from people entering abortion clinics.

Massachusetts went further by adopting fixed no-protest zones in 2007, frustrated by a history of clinic violence in Boston and the difficulty of enforcing a mixture of “bubble zones” and smaller fixed areas at entrances to medical facilities.

The law barred protesters from crossing a painted line that kept them 35 feet from clinic doors. Anti-abortion groups sued, claiming the limit violated their free speech rights by making it impossible to converse with entering patients.

While the decision Thursday was unanimous, four of the court’s more conservative justices filed concurring opinions expressing different legal reasoning.

Nationwide, similar buffer-zone restrictions on abortion protests have been imposed in roughly a dozen cities.

The decision Thursday does not affect the validity of floating “bubble zone” restrictions.

— Pete Williams