U.S. Supreme Court

SCOTUS to consider whether 35-foot abortion-clinic buffer zone impedes free speech

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The U.S. Supreme Court will consider the constitutionality of a Massachusetts law that bars people from entering 35-foot buffer zones around abortion clinics, unless they are employees or agents of the facility.

The court granted cert on Monday, report SCOTUSblog, the Associated Press and the Boston Globe. Abortion opponents claim the law is “inescapably viewpoint-based” and it violates their free speech rights.

Salem lawyer Philip Moran represents the seven abortion opponents challenging the law. “You can’t stand outside 35 feet and communicate with people,” he told the Boston Globe. “You have to have eye contact.”

The case, McCullen v. Coakley, is “potentially significant,” SCOTUSblog says. The Supreme Court upheld an 8-foot buffer zone for protests outside health-care facilities in Colorado in a 2000 case, Hill v. Colorado. The petitioners challenging the Massachusetts law claim it differs from the law upheld in Hill because it permits speech by people who would express the clinic’s view while excluding speech by others, and because it applies only at abortion clinics.

To the extent that Hill cannot be distinguished, it should be overruled, challengers to the Massachusetts law say.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy was a dissenter in the Hill case, while four justices in the six-person majority are no longer with the court. “The personnel of the court has, obviously, changed since the Hill decision,” SCOTUSblog says. “And Justice Kennedy’s dissenting opinion in Hill suggests that respondents will have a difficult time finding a fifth vote.”

SCOTUSblog links to the cert petition (PDF).

Updated on Jan. 16 to correct spelling of case name.

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