Protesters Challenge Abortion Buffer Zone

A group of Massachusetts residents filed a lawsuit in federal court challenging a new state law that creates a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics.

The plaintiffs argued in the suit filed Friday that the new law impinges their free speech rights within the zone by restricting them from sharing their pro-life message with people entering the clinics. Several senior citizens and a Harvard pre-med student are listed as plaintiffs in the suit.

According to the suit, the pro-life supporters "regularly travel to the public ways adjacent to reproductive health care facilities in Massachusetts to peacefully provide information about abortion alternatives and to offer assistance and support to persons entering and/or exiting the facility."

The talks usually center around alternatives to abortion, "including adoption and other means of support, including financial and/or emotional support," the suit states.

Attorneys with Alliance Defense Fund, the organization representing the residents, said the ban on protest surrounding the abortion clinic is unconstitutional and wants the court to overturn the law.

"It's ironic that Massachusetts, the 'cradle of liberty,' would pass a law that effectively creates a First Amendment-free zone that silences those who seek to share the truth about abortion," said ADF attorney Tim Chandler.

"Those with pro-life views have the same First Amendment rights as anyone else in America."

The buffer zone law was also challenged by Operation Rescue: Boston, a pro-life group that holds daily vigils outside the city's abortion clinics. The group filed a suit over the restriction last Wednesday.

Under the old law, enacted in 2000, protesters who are within 18 feet of the clinic must stay at least six feet away from patients unless the individual consents to a closer encounter. The new law, signed by Governor Deval Patrick in November, bars protestors from coming closer than 35 feet from the entrance.

The new law threatens first-time violators up to $500 and three months in jail. Repeat offenders face fines of up to $5,000 and two and a half years in prison.

In some cases, the new restriction leaves only about one foot of public sidewalk open to free speech, according to ADF, making it virtually impossible for the plaintiffs to speak with those entering the clinics.

"The buffer law is breathtaking in its scope," commented ADF-allied attorney Michael DePrimo. "It obviously was designed and intended to squelch pro-life speech, but it prohibits much more, such as labor picketing and charitable solicitations. The First Amendment simply does not permit such outlandish restrictions on peaceful speech."

Massachusetts is just one of several states facing challenges over laws which create buffer zones around abortion clinics.

In the most recent case, an ordinance mandating an 8-foot buffer around abortion clinics in Oakland, Calif., was put on hold by a judge after a challenge against the law was filed. An amended ordinance is expected to be presented before the judge this month.

Attorney Cyrus Johnson, a free speech advocate, had expressed concern in an interview with about granting "the government power to say which message can be communicated and which message cannot."