National Edition

Supreme Court to hear arguments on freedom of speech in abortion case

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 15 2014 10:30 a.m. MST

This photo taken Dec. 17, 2013 shows anti-abortion protester Eleanor McCullen, of Boston, standing at the painted edge of a buffer zone outside a Planned Parenthood location in Boston. The regulation of protests outside abortion clinics returns to the Supreme Court for the first time since 2000 to find the justices seemingly more protective of speech and less committed to abortion rights. That combination could prove difficult to overcome for the state of Massachusetts as it seeks to defend a law, in arguments at the high court on Jan. 15, that prohibits abortion protests any closer than 35 feet from the entrance to clinics.

Steven Senne, Associated Press

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday in a case centered around a Massachusetts law that prohibits protests from breaching a 35-foot buffer zone outside of abortion clinics thus making this a case that will show the court’s current views on freedom of speech.

Currently, the Massachusetts law, which was passed in 2007, allows clinic employees within the buffer zone. The petitioners of the case argue that the current law “means that only those who oppose abortion rights are subject to the restriction,” CBS News reported.

NPR explained that the law allows anyone to pass through the buffer zone as long as they’re trying to “enter the facility or cross to the other side of the zone.”

Eleanor McCullen, 77, brought the case to the Supreme Court, along with “a group of other anti-abortion rights activists who stand outside of clinics to try to dissuade women from getting abortions,” CBS News reported.

The group said Massachusetts’ ban is unfair as protesting doesn’t cause any harm, CBS News said.

“They are peaceful, non-confrontational, and do not obstruct access,” the group's brief presented to the court argues, according to CBS. “Yet, the State prohibits them from entering or standing on large portions of the public sidewalk to proffer leaflets or seek to begin conversations with willing listeners.”

Wednesday’s case has connections back to a case in Colorado in 2000 when the Supreme Court upheld an 8-foot floating buffer zones around individuals to protect patients and staff entering and exiting these clinics, reported NPR.

“Since then, buffer zones have prevented demonstrators from closely approaching patients and staff without permission," NPR report states.

“The three dissenters in that case — Justices Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas — remain on the court,” according to the Associated Press.

The Colorado case, according to The Boston Herald, is one reason experts say the Supreme Court should side with the protesters and erase the law.

“Because of the change in the composition of the court, and the criticism of the Colorado decision, the current court will likely overturn it,” said Mark Tushnet, professor at Harvard Law School to The Boston Herald.

Lawrence Friedman of New England School of Law also told The Herald that the law isn’t going to be well-liked by the Supreme Court.

“This is a court very interested in upholding freedom of speech, and if that is any indication, I think it means this law may run into some trouble in this court,” Friedman said to The Boston Herald.

This isn’t the only case on abortion that the Supreme Court dealt with this week. On Monday, the high court decided not to hear an appeal from those in Arizona “seeking to revive a state law that barred most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy,” The New York Times reported.

But the Arizona case is just one of the increasing number of abortion cases finding their way to the Supreme Court, according to The New Yorker.

Email: hscribner@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @hscribner

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