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Are state “buffer zones” around abortion clinics unconstitutional?

January 22, 2014

By Jeremy Quattlebaum, Student Voices staff writer

Public safety vs. free speech. That is the issue at the heart of McCullen v. Coakley, which may decide if Massachusetts’ mandated 35-foot buffer zone around the entrances of abortion clinics violates anti-abortion protesters’ First Amendment right of free speech.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case earlier this month. The Massachusetts law says that individuals, with the exception of clinic staff or patients, must stay 35 feet from the entrance of the clinics. The law is intended to provide staff and patients unobstructed access to the clinics. It was a response to increased violence against abortion providers, including the killings of two abortion clinic workers outside a clinic in a Boston suburb in 1994.

Seventy-year-old Eleanor McCullen, who is the lead plaintiff and a member of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, says she doesn’t pose a threat to women who are entering the clinic. All she wants to do, she tells the women, is “just talk a minute before you rush in.” She tells them that there is another option “other than taking the child” and quietly tries to get them to change their minds.

Lawyers for McCullen argue that the buffer zones are on public space, which should be open to all types of opinions. Catholic University law professor Mark Rienzi, who represents the anti-abortion demonstrators, said, “Public sidewalks are places that people are supposed to be free to exchange information and exchange ideas."

Employees of the Planned Parenthood Clinic in Boston see the buffer zones as necessary for their safety and the safety of their patients, 90 percent of whom are receiving primary care, contraception, cancer screenings, or gynecological services. They say that even tighter safety measures are needed, describing the scene outside the clinic as often chaotic, with confrontations between abortion-rights supporters and protesters.

In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a “floating” 8-foot buffer zone in Colorado was constitutional. A “floating” buffer zone is like a protective bubble surrounding patients as they exit and enter the clinic.

This month, in McCullen v. Coakley, the justices seemed to have a different sense of what a 35-foot buffer zone looked like. Justice Elena Kagan, who indicated she thought the zone was too big, speculated that the court’s chambers were about 35 feet. The chamber measures 82 feet by 91 feet, according to the court’s website. Deputy Solicitor General Ian Gershengorn, arguing for the Obama administration on behalf of the state, said it was about the distance from the three-point line to the basket in the NBA, but that distance is 23 feet, 9 inches. Justice Sonia Sotomayor came close when she said that 35 feet was two car lengths. The average car is 16 feet long.

Faulty estimates aside, the argument about the size of the 35-foot zone was just one of the issues. Another argument is that the law is too broad, affecting peaceful protesters as well as violent ones.

Justice Antonin Scalia said the plaintiffs were not protesters, but women trying to have quiet conversations with the patients.

“These people don’t want to protest abortion,” Scalia said. “They want to talk to women who are about to get abortions and try to talk them out of it.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made the point that the state doesn’t know “in advance who are the well-behaved people and who are the people who won’t behave well.”

Massachusetts officials and clinic employees say that since the law went into effect in 2007, the patients feel safer and it is easier to enter the clinic. Abortion-rights groups say violence is down around clinics in cities and states that have buffer zones.

Marty Walz, head of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, likened the buffer to the state’s 150-foot buffer zones around polling places. Individuals are barred from handing out campaign literature within that zone.

What do you think?

Do the 35-foot buffer zones violate anti-abortion advocates’ free speech rights? Or are they necessary to protect staff and patients? Does the size of the zone affect whether it’s constitutional? Join the discussion and let us know what you think!
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4/15/2014
Frisco,TX
Haley
AdamsCTECenter
I believe that buffer zones are constitutional because it protects the safety of the patients as well as the bystanders 1st amendment rights in the process. By not allowing the protestors to cross a certain area it makes certain there will be no unnecessary riots or fights. SCOTUS has determined that your right to free speech is fine as long as it doesn't impede on someone else's. With the buffer zones the protestors can still voice they'll opinions while the patients can safely receive medical attention in the clinic.

4/11/2014
Mckinney/ Tx
Jeremy
Adams/ CTE
Buffer zones around abortion clinics are not unconstitutional because they do not limit the speech of the protestors and provide safety for all those who use the services these medical facilities provide. There have been recent attacks on such medical facilities and this measure provides safety against the implementation of such dangerous practices by angry citizens. Also people can voice their opinion quite easily from 35 feet which is simply the length of two cars. When all said and done this rule will provide safety and comfort for both the protestors and citizens using the abortion clinics.

4/11/2014
Frisco, TX
Marlen
Adams/CTE Center
I believe that the “35-foot” buffer zones around the clinics don't necessarily violate the rights of the protesters freedom of speech. They aren’t asking the protesters to completely stop protesting. It’s kind of on the same basis with “No smoking within 50-feet” signs. They aren’t telling you that you can do something, nor harming your first amendment rights. They are protecting their own.

4/9/2014
Frisco, TX
Sarah
Adams/CTE Center
The question of whether or not buffer zones outside abortion clinics is not just a question of freedom of speech. It is equally, and, more importantly, I could argue, one of personal safety. There is sufficient evidence to show that the demonstrators are not necessarily always peaceful, and that some of their actions can come off as intimidating, both physically and verbally. Therefore, the safety of the women entering the clinic is called into question by the presence of these protestors. And while not all protestors are necessarily violent, there is no way to screen protestors for violent intentions. The buffer zone is also a physical restraint, not a verbal one. Behind the 35 foot perimeter, they can say whatever they want. The space is just enough to allow for a measure of safety and security in these institutions. The size of the zone should be directly reflective of how much physical distance is necessary to ensure the safety of the patients entering the clinic. The government's first priority should be ensuring the safety of its people, and when freedom of speech shows a definite possibility of inciting violence, then safety should take precedence.

4/9/2014
Frisco, Tx
Brooke
adams/CTE Center
State "buffer zones" around abortion clinics are definitley constitutional because they provide safe and easy access to the clinic for the patients and staff. Protesting often gets violent and with the buffer zone added to clinics, the criminal rate is dropped slightly. Patients complain that they do not feel safe going to the clinic because of protesters so if there was a buffer zone it would help a lot.

4/9/2014
Frisco, Tx
Brooke
adams/CTE Center
State "buffer zones" around abortion clinics are definitley constitutional because they provide safe and easy access to the clinic for the patients and staff. Protesting often gets violent and with the buffer zone added to clinics, the criminal rate is dropped slightly. Patients complain that they do not feel safe going to the clinic because of protesters so if there was a buffer zone it would help a lot.

3/11/2014
Sidney,MT
Nicole
Fauhlaber/Sidney
The buffer zones in front of abortion clinics is a question about freedom of speech and whether or not people can have abortions. The answer about abortions is yes, people can have abortions with some restrictions after the 1st trimester. People also have the freedom of speech but this right is not absolute and can be restricted. While they may claim 'to want to talk to people seeking abortions', people need to realize that their opinion is not always welcomed. Since this is already a stressful situation, people should be more sensitive about those who are there and realize what stress they could be causing by protesting and inserting their opinions. People are so determined to insert their own opinion that they are hurting others and causing physical hurt. Expressing ones opinions and lifestyle preferences is not more important than another persons safety. So yes buffer zones should still be allowed.

3/11/2014
Sidney/MT
Megan Johnson
Faulhaber/Sidney High School
The First Amendment of the United States gives people the freedom of speech, but not all rights are absolute. The protesters, violent or not, have the right and potential to convince the abortion clinics clients to reconsider their decisions before they get to the buffer zone. In 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that in the state of Colorado an eight foot "floating" buffer zone was constitutional. These Justices realized the need for more protection for these women. The already present stress of going to the abortion clinic is just amplified by the persistent nagging of the protesters. The people entering the clinic have more than likely already thought of the pros and cons of getting an abortion. The buffer zone around the clinic is to protect the safety of the clients.

3/11/2014
Sidney/MT
Colin
Mr. Faulhaber/Sidney High School
The issue at hand is whether buffer zones are constitutional or not. I believe that the buffer zones around the clinics are constitutional. People's safety is more important than another persons First Amendment right to verbally abuse a persons decision. Ones freedom to swing their fist ends where someone else's nose begins. I agree with the Supreme Court that a "floating" buffer zone is constitutional but I think that they should take it even further and create an even larger buffer zone for people's safety. I disagree with Justice Scalia when he said that "these people don't want to protest abortion." I believe that most people are out to protest abortion and can turn violent quickly which is why these buffer zones should be in place.

3/11/2014
Sidney, MT
Tresha
Sidney High School
The issue presented by this article is the concept of safety vs. free speech. What's being decided by the Supreme Court is whether public safety or free speech should be higher up on hierarchy of importance. I believe buffer zones are necessary for clinics like Planned Parenthood to help their patients. I agree that sidewalks should be a place where people are free to exchange opinions and ideas but it's gone past that around these abortion clinics. People get aggressive, blocking patients from entering the building and like the article said there's even been murder involved with this. Justice Ginsberg is completely right that "the state doesn't know...who the well-behaved people and who are the people who won't behave well." Eleanor McCullen is not the problem; it's the hundreds of other protesters threatening violence and actually committing violence that are the actual problem. I sympathize with Ms. McCullen but I would put the safety of the women and clinic workers over someone's right to verbally tear them down.

3/11/2014
Sidney, MT
Lexie Brunsvold
Mr. Faulhaber/Sidney High School
The issue in this article is the same issue in McCullen v. Coakley, public safety vs. free speech. As Pablo has said, "Buffer zones around abortion clinics unconstitutionally inhibits the free speech rights of antiabortion activists." I agree with this because they are being limited on a right, but at the same time the woman going into the abortion clinic should not have to feel unsafe. The decision a woman makes going into an abortion clinic is scary enough, but throw a bunch of protesters in front of the door and it is even scarier. The barrier is just a line though, it is not a wall or a gate, just a painted line. How is that supposed to help at all? It is not going to stop people from scaring the lady into walking away. Free speech is part of the constitution, it is the very first one you read. The Constitutions is there to protect people, just like these buffer zones are there to protect the woman going into the clinic.

3/10/2014
Sidney/MT
Tori Hill
Faulhaber/Sidney High School
The issue here is public safety vs. free speech. Those in favor of buffer zones are worried about public safety, while anti-abortion protestors are worried about their free speech rights. "Just talk a minute before you rush in," says McCullen. Yeah, sure, and why don't you make them feel like more like satanic spawn for doing something that should be left up to the discretion of the woman and her doctor? I agree that "public sidewalks are places that people are supposed to be free to exchange information and exchange ideas." But two people were killed! I do question though what happens after the patients get out of the zone. About two car lengths does not seem like enough space to avoid a mob. I think Justice Scalia ought to go watch some of the "peaceful protests." The patient's safety and the safety of the people HAVE to come first. The 35-foot buffer zones are NOT violating anti-abortion advocates' free speech rights if the protesters are already abusing them with violence. The size of the zone is important. Freedom of speech is limited in public schools! It can be limited on public sidewalks. Besides, you can project your voice over the zone if you are passionate enough. All those in favor of buffer zones ask is that your passion does not harm those who wish to do business.

3/7/2014
Sidney/MT
Juan Aguilar
Sidney
The issue presented is whether public safety out weighs somebodies free speech right. In the article it says the buffer zones are 35ft space and allow for people to enter the clinics safely. How can a 35ft zone protect people if there is a violent protestor they can easily still get to the person before the zone. Also like Bradley said a 35ft zone is way to big they could easily make the zone smaller. Also it is a public sidewalk so people who want to express their freedom of speech should be allowed to. Some people also just want to show people there are other options then abortions so they should be allowed to talk to people who are wanting to get an abortion.

2/27/2014
Irving/tx
Pablo Martinez
Bradley/Nimitz
Buffer zones around abortion clinics unconstitutionally inhibits the free speech rights of antiabortion activists. It's not letting them hand out leaflets or speak to the women planning abortions, is preventing them from expressing their ideas.Buffer zones are necessary to to protect the patients I understand is for safety reasons but a 35 foot buffer zone is way too much. If the size was decreased so that the anti-abortion protesters could be heard it would be fair making it totally right and constitutional.

2/13/2014
Sidney, MT 59270
Destiny
Mr. Faulhaber, Sidney HighSchool
I agree with the state "buffer zones". Especially aound abortion clinics. i amd, too, against abortion but im not one to stand and protest about it. Some women are already overwhelmed by the pregnancy and their decision to abort the child, but getting in their faces about it wont make their decision any different, but, like Eleanor McCullen says she just wants to take a minute of their time and talk to these ladies and maybe chamge their thought process. and thats where the buffer zones come in handy. so those who do plan on getting violent violated a law, but those who just want to talk will get their chance to talk, calmly, to these ladies. My opinion, im all for the buffer zones.

2/4/2014
Benson/ Arizona
Johnny
Mr Sorensn/ Benson Unified High School
No, the 35 feet buffer zone don't advocate anti-abortion violations and free speech rights because the court chambers are 35 feet and the court rules rightly and the 35 feet is a good range so that non-abortionists don't interfere with the stuff going on inside the rooms. But they are necessary to protect staffs and MEMBERS. If the zone was 10 feet there wouldn't be a big buffer to keep non asortionist out.

2/3/2014
Benson/AZ
Jessica
Marv Sorenson/Benson High School
Everyone has their different opinions. I don't think that a buffer zone will violate the antiabortion protesters right of free speech. The buffer zone would be protecting those who work in the clinic and those who go to it while the protesters will still be able to protest outside of the zone. Who says the protesters need to be right next to the clinic to get their word out?

1/31/2014
Benson, Az
Hana
Marv Sorenson/ Benson Unified High School
I don't think that the buffer zone violates free speech rights, considering how he people can just yell across the 35-feet. I think that 35-feet is a bit much and it should be a little less than that. I do agree with the buffer zone because some patients and staff may not want to be bombarded with protesters, peaceful or not.

1/31/2014
Benson/AZ
Cheyenne
Sorenson/Benson High School
Even though I'm against abortion I do think that it's a human right to have protection from people invading your business. I do think that the 35 foot buffer zone is more than enough to protect that right.

1/31/2014
Benson/AZ
Mollie
Sorensen/Benson High School
The size of the buffer zone does affect the constitutionality of the limits, but not in the sense of just one foot more or one foot less. The zone will be constitutional as long as protesters/peaceful persuaders can be seen and can communicate their cause. The 35 foot zone easily allows this. If an intended patient is willing to be spoken to, she can turn to someone calling to her and step outside the zone. The article says that the zones hope to prevent “confrontations between abortion-rights supporter and protesters.” So they aren’t even laying all the blame on protesters, as the aforementioned line implies that abortion-rights supporters may sometimes be the group at fault. The purpose of the zone is not to limit the rights or the effectiveness of peaceful protesters. It is to prevent conflict between the two different parties of abortion rights supporters and protesters, in order to prevent violence from affecting people of either group, clinic workers, or patients. They’re not taking away freedom of speech from the entire nation. They’re preventing conflict in a 35-foot zone (and if you want to take the right to “speech,” literally, then consider that protesters’ voices can be heard over a 35-foot zone).

1/31/2014
Benson AZ
Josiah
Benson High School
I do not think that there should be any place in America that can prohibit the right to speak freely unless it is private property. Although if there is someone abusing the law and taking extraordinary measures to insure that what they say gets herd even if it puts another person at risk it is terrorism and disciplinary actions should be given. If it was okay to sit outside a hospital and haze someone who is doing what is necessary to them at the time then we might as well have racism as well that of which is not tolerated. Taking away the right to speak freely is simply a death trap to anyone enforcing it, protecting the rights of the few minority is our country's duty as a nation.

1/28/2014
Benson/Arizona
Rachael
Mr. Sorensen/Benson High School
Anytime that the safety of the people is at risk, it is important to take action and ensure protection. In the case of buffer zones around abortion clinics, public security has been an issue in the past and therefore the zones are necessary. Freedom of speech is not being stripped away because they are held back a few feet. This freedom is still very much alive. It is how the people choose to use this freedom that gives them this state of mind. Because they cannot speak to these patients at the time of entering doesn’t mean they don’t have the opportunity before-hand. Consequences, as in any other case, are sometimes set on the public as a whole and not just restricted to those from which the dispute has derived. I don’t believe the size of the zone affects whether it is constitutional or not because as long as it is on private property and isn’t obstructing public matter, it shouldn’t be a difficulty. An expression of opinion is important but not so essential that lives should be taken or put at risk.

1/28/2014
Benson, AZ
Dayne Owen/ Colten Pike
Mr. Sorenson
Abortion is always a sensitive topic many people are against it and few support it,and those who support it receive much grief for it and that’s why having “buffer zones” are quintessential.Even though protesters are not always harmful there has been a couple of incidents where there has been crime around the clinics and for the safety of the people entering the clinic there should be a buffer zone. The main reason for the buffer zones are for safety not to discourage people from their freedom of speech. As for the size of the buffer zone it should be big enough to wear it accommodates the patients but not over exaggerated to where it interferes with daily life.

1/27/2014
Benson/ Arizona
Katie Bryan
Mr. Sorensen/Benson High School
I believe the buffer zones are absolutely needed. These are women that are carrying children, true most of them are trying to get rid of their child but at least in a humane way, if violence from protestors were to break out then the child and the woman could get hurt in an inhumane way and get seriously injured, maybe even fatally. If protestors can't convince the women to rethink their decision before the buffer zone, what good is the extra 35 feet going to give them? Will it some how psychologically change their mind if they can speak to the woman directly in front of the building instead of 35 feet away from it? I don't understand why protestors need this extra 35 feet to talk to them. As for sidewalks being public places that should let people have their first amendment rights, get over it! You can convince people from another sidewalk!

1/27/2014
Benson, AZ
Sarah
Mr. Sorenson/ Benson High School
Buffer zones may, in fact, violate free speech rights, but if the issue is a matter of danger, I think the zones are fine. Considering people have been hurt in the past and that it's a huge debate, it's probably a good idea to have the clinic and the outside people separated. It's not like the people wanting to talk about it can't do that. 32 feet isn't very far. They just can't be very close to the person. I'm not saying I'm for abortion or condemn it, but I think considering the circumstances, a buffer zone is for safety

1/27/2014
Irving/TX
Carmen
Bradley/Nimitz High School
I believe that the buffer zones size should be left at 35 feet long, regardless of the size the Anti-abortion advocates would still be entitled to their own opinion and find a way to promote or speak on the choice the women have made to abolish their unborn child. And the size does protect the patients as well as the staff. but more importantly the patients. I believe that this isn't stopping the advocates from being held back on their opinion , simply just being restricted a bit more. In my opinion these buffer zones shouldn't even be there. Although its a form of free speech, its not up to them what the women should or shouldn't do. The choice should only apply to one person, and that is all. Whether its right or wrong, the choice of having an abortion does not affect the advocates, physically, or emotionally.

1/27/2014
Irving/TX
Vivian
Bradley/Nimitz
Abortion has been the most controversial issue that wrangles to this day. Because of past incidents that have involved abortion protesters and supporters causing violence by the clinics, buffer zones would be most convenient to these areas for both of the groups. Buffer zones encompassing the clinics at its distance doesn't stop or limit protesters from giving their objections to the patients or even dissuading them entering and leaving the clinics. Therefore, this does not take away any person's freedom of speech. Although the complaints of people’s perception of the 35-foot zone become another subject of the matter, this still does not violate a person’s free speech rights. At the end of the day, people's safely is what must come first.

1/26/2014
Irving/Texas
Kelsea
Bradley/Nimitz HS
Buffer-zones placed around medical facilities, may they be abortion clinics, to serve the purpose of safety to the employees and staff should not be seen as unconstitutional in the name of the first amendment. If an individual chooses to spend their time trying to talk women out of getting abortions they can do so at a distance that doesn't cause any harm to another individual. If they claim to be "quiet" negotiators why would they conflict with the length of a buffer zone? How could one determine and trust the claims of peace with violent past scenarios as evidence that not all protesters are peaceful? Granted free speech is given to the people of our nation to exercise anywhere an individual chooses to do so, but it isn't solely one's duty to take the liberty of trying to change another's decision on a personal level. We each have the right to make our own choices and if one chooses to go through with abortion, already having gone through the possible emotional toil, they shouldn't have to live in fear of facing violence as they carry out their decision nor have to deal with the mind games of someone who is ultimately out to manipulate them into doing what they want. The choice is hard enough without the threat of death and harassment. The buffer zones are rational to any being who isn't clouded with religious views on what is right and wrong according to ancient writings. The distances can be altered to fit the need of the surroundings of the abortion clinics to wear public lands, such as sidewalks, would not be included in the buffer zone; this should be at the liberty of the clinic itself to decide (granted there is a limit as to how large the buffer zone may be). There are alternatives to the issue here. Instead of having women standing outside abortion clinics to talk other women out of getting an abortion, there should be a group talk or seminar conducted by fully platonic experts prepared with information. I believe in the right of choice.

1/24/2014
Irving/Tx
Ruth
Bradley/Nimitz
Abortion is always a sensitive topic many people are against it and few support it,and those who support it receive much grief for it and that’s why having “buffer zones” are quintessential.Even though protesters are not always harmful there has been a couple of incidents where there has been crime around the clinics and for the safety of the people entering the clinic there should be a buffer zone. The main reason for the buffer zones are for safety not to discourage people from their freedom of speech. As for the size of the buffer zone it should be big enough to wear it accommodates the patients but not over exaggerated to where it interferes with daily life.

1/24/2014
Irving,Tx
Ty'Mira
Bradley/Nimitz
I Believe that the 35-foot buffering zone is not violating the anti-abortion advocates, I mean they still have the right to say what they want, just from a distance. Distance is just to make the advocates feel more "safe" with their surroundings. Being 35 feet away from a woman that is about to get an abortion performed, does not hinder their ability to comprehend what you speak out.

1/24/2014
Irving/Texas
Adam
Bradley/Nimitz
I understand where the anti-abortion protesters are coming from, but what they’re doing is wrong. It violates that individual’s rights as a citizen thats capable of knowing what's right and wrong, and can also make their own decisions themselves. The people that are trying to get into the clinic are probably scared out of their minds and the last thing they need is for random strangers stopping them from entering the clinic, and yapping in their ears. If there has already been reported accidents and deaths committed because of these protests, this should have to end the debate of the “Buffer Zones”. The citizens need to be protected and be safe when going into the clinics.

1/24/2014
Irving/Tx
Rajith
Bradley/Nimitz High School
When it comes to buffer zones in public places, no matter the size, it impedes on the citizenries right to freedom of speech. If the clientele is not being stalked, assaulted or in some way unlawfully accosted then what is the harm in someone expressing themselves to someone else. If this type of public discourse is being buffered, what stops all public discourse from being buffered, from being controlled. In the effort to preemptively stop "people who won't behave well" the law infringes all people's rights. On the other hand, the patrons of the abortion clinics have not been wronged by someone trying to change their mind. If someone does criminally offend them, they can call the proper authorities, as any person in the community has the right to do. This law veils itself under the premise of public safety when in actuality it is just another law to promote one faction's ideological beliefs and repress another's. Buffer zones in general, from abortion clinics to polling stations, infringes a individual's freedom of speech. It is a cumbersome bureaucratic attempt to "protect" the public with one broad stroke rather than sincerely assessing situations on a case by case basis.

1/23/2014
Irving/Texas
Nick M
Bradley/Nimitz
Abortion brings up many arguments, and heated people. However, having a buffer zone would be ideal because even though the people may not be protesters, violence has occurred in these zones. Giving a clear path to the clinic is whats needed. With individuals crowding the clinic and discouraging others to enter, it is as if they are influencing them to not get the abortions. Since violence has already occurred a “buffer zone” would diminish the heated, agitating, enclosed areas that violence occurs.

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