Several cities across the country have decided to suspend enforcement of imposed buffer zones around local abortion facilities following the recent Supreme Court ruling that struck down such free speech-free zones as unconstitutional.
As previously reported, last month, the high court unanimously ruled against a Massachusetts law that restricted free speech in areas within 35 feet of abortion facilities. While the court had differing views as to why the law was problematic, Chief Justice John Roberts outlined that the law was too broad and cut off more speech than necessary to achieve the government’s interests in “public safety.”
“Petitioners wish to converse with their fellow citizens about an important subject on the public streets and sidewalks—sites that have hosted discussions about the issues of the day throughout history,” he wrote. “Respondents assert undeniably significant interests in maintaining public safety on those same streets and sidewalks, as well as in preserving access to adjacent healthcare facilities.”
“But here the Commonwealth has pursued those interests by the extreme step of closing a substantial portion of a traditional public forum to all speakers,” Roberts continued. “It has done so without seriously addressing the problem through alternatives that leave the forum open for its time-honored purposes. The Commonwealth may not do that consistent with the First Amendment.”
The case had been brought by a 77-year-old woman who regularly sought to speak to abortion-minded mothers at abortion facilities, but found that the law made it difficult for her to effectively communicate.
In response to the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling, a number of cities across the nation are rethinking similar buffer zones, and some have halted enforcement of the law until city council members further contemplate whether the restriction can legally remain on the books.
Burlington, Vermont City Attorney Eileen Beachwood recently suspended enforcement of the city’s 2012 buffer zone, which likewise restricted speech within 35-feet of an abortion facility. She told local radio station WAMC that she intends to ask Burlington City Council to eliminate the prohibition from the law, while leaving language that bans obstruction of entrances and exits.
“Our plan is to ask the City Council to amend the ordinance by removing that section of the law,” Beachwood explained. “The City Council also probably will then take a look at are there other things that can be included in the ordinance that would be constitutional following the court’s ruling. So, for example, the court suggested to Massachusetts that it could have tried a number of other prohibitions on conduct.”
Michael May, city attorney for Madison, Wisconsin, also decided to discontinue enforcement of a law that was just passed in February, which restricted pro-lifers from coming within eight feet of a person within 60 feet of an abortion facility.
“In light of the Supreme Court decision, we suspended enforcement to figure out what, if anything, is left of the ordinance,” he told reporters.
Likewise, city council members in Portland, Oregon voted last night to repeal a 39-foot buffer zone that it had unanimously approved last November. The ordinance had forced Christians to stand on the other side of the street as they pleaded with women to allow their child the right to life.
Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) Senior Legal Counsel Matt Bowman told reporters that the Supreme Court decision was proper, and that he is pleased that cities are aligning with the precedent.
“The government cannot gag speech just because it doesn’t reflect the government’s views or the views of abortionists,” he stated. “The Supreme Court has now made it even more clear that public streets and sidewalks are places where free speech is highly protected.”