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Editorial: Reducing buffer zones

Too restrictive. In two words, the U.S. Supreme Court said loudly and clearly that the Massachusetts law creating a buffer zone outside abortion clinics violated the First Amendment of the Constitution when it came to free speech.

In this case, the unanimous court found that a distance of 35 feet didn’t allow anti-abortion protesters to get their message across to those using the services of a clinic. In other words, it apparently isn’t enough that protesters be allowed to say whatever they want, but that they should be able to have “personal, caring, consensual conversations with women about various alternatives.”

This was the case made by the plaintiff, 77-year-old anti-abortion activist Eleanor McCullen, who said that she and others couldn’t get their soft-spoken message across from such a distance.

We suppose no one would be worried if indeed all protesters were offering a calm approach in matters where people definitely have differences about their thinking on abortion and the choices they have. Yet for every anti-abortion activist who holds herself like McCullen there are other protesters who loudly target women entering a clinic for verbal harassment.

Also remember that verbal assault of patients and others entering a clinic, or even attempts to block the entrance of a clinic, wasn’t what prompted Massachusetts to establish the 35-foot buffer zone in 2007. It was created in part because of acts of deadly violence targeting such clinics, including the 1994 shootings of two clinic staffers in Brookline. It’s violence that continues to this day around the country where there are clinics providing such health services.

Thus, the creation of a buffer zone was intended to find a balance between free speech and public safety.

Massachusetts’ zone wasn’t the right balance. At least the court didn’t listen to four of its conservative judges who didn’t think the ruling went far enough since a buffer zone is still allowed. Chief Justice John Roberts writing the decision upheld the right of states, concerned about safety and public access to restrict protesters.

The impetus is on the lawmakers to find the right distance to protect clinics and their patients without infringing upon the speech rights of soft talkers.

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