BOSTON — The governor of Massachusetts has signed a new abortion buffer zone bill into law in light of the recent Supreme Court ruling that declared such free speech-free zones as being 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 77-year-old Eleanor McCullen, 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.
On Wednesday, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signed a new bill into law, S.B. 2281, “An Act to promote public safety and protect access to reproductive health care facilities.” In annulling the previous 35-foot restriction, the bill now bars those who wish to reach abortion-minded mothers from hindering entrance into the facilities and “intimidating” or injuring women who seek to enter.
“A person who impedes a person’s access to or departure from a reproductive health care facility with the intent to interfere with that person’s ability to provide, support the provision of or obtain services at the reproductive health care facility shall be punished, for the first offense, by a fine of not more than $1,000 or not more than 6 months in a jail or house of correction or by both such fine and imprisonment,” it reads in part.
Police may also order groups that they consider to be impeding the entrance to disperse. Those receiving the order may not stand within 25 feet of the facility for the next eight hours, or until the abortion facility closes for the day.
“I am incredibly proud to sign legislation that continues Massachusetts leadership in ensuring that women seeking to access reproductive health facilities can do so safely and without harassment, and that the employees of those facilities can arrive at work each day without fear of harm,” Gov. Patrick said in a statement after signing the bill.
But pro-life groups in the state assert that the new bill is even more harmful to free speech than the previous measure.
“The new buffer zone law is a backdoor attempt to interfere with the constitutional right of free speech in the service of women seeking abortion whose minds are not made up—women who are looking for the hope, help, love, and concrete aid offered by Eleanor McCullen and other peaceful sidewalk counselors,” McCullen’s attorney, Michael DePrimo, told reporters.
“The reality is that individuals in the abortion industry have a business incentive to falsely characterize any attempt at pro-life communication on the public ways outside abortion clinics as a form of harassment or intimidation, no matter how peaceful,” he continued. “It is important for law enforcement to understand that momentary attempts at peaceful communication to offer hope, help and love are constitutionally protected expressive conduct, despite the legislature’s rejection of an amendment … that would have made that expressly clear.”
DePrimo said that despite concerns over how the new legislation may be interpreted by law enforcement, pro-lifers in the state will not be deterred from helping to save lives.
“My client Eleanor McCullen and the other peaceful sidewalk counselors will continue to serve the women of Boston who deserve real alternatives to abortion,” he said. “We will closely monitor law enforcement’s use of the new law to ensure that our clients’ peaceful exercise of First Amendment rights is not infringed.”