(CN) – Abortion protesters lost their challenge to a new law creating a 35-foot fixed buffer zone around Massachusetts abortion clinics. The 1st Circuit viewed the restriction as a reasonable, content-neutral response to safety concerns.
The notion of a buffer zone emerged in the late 1990s, after abortion clinics across the state experienced ramped up violence, intimidation and aggressive behavior from anti-abortion protesters.
The state Legislature passed a law in 2000 that barred protesters from coming within six feet of another person in order to hand out leaflets, display signs, preach or engage in other protest-related activities. However, the ban only operated within an 18-foot buffer zone around clinic entrances, exits and driveways.
Residents who wanted to stage closer protests challenged the constitutionality of the bill and lost in a pair of 1st Circuit rulings.
After a few years, lawmakers realized that the 2000 law was not only difficult to enforce, but also failed to achieve the safety goals they intended. A revised 2007 law eliminated the floating buffer and established a 35-foot, fixed buffer zone around reproductive health clinics.
A group of protest regulars challenged the revision, calling the buffer’s expanded size “suspicious” and saying it causes more safety hazards than it tries to avert. They added that legislators only listened to one side of the story in passing the revised law.
The group also viewed the revised law as content-based discrimination, as it makes an exception for clinic employees and applies only to reproductive health-care clinics.
Judge Selya noted that the court rejected that argument in its earlier rulings. “The present plaintiffs try to give that argument a new twist” by claiming the size and nature of the new buffer zone “somehow changes the constitutional calculus and makes this exception less defensible,” Selya wrote.
“This is whistling past the graveyard.”
The court also noted that those outside the buffer zone could express their views however they wished – with signs, loudspeakers, T-shirts, “the whole gamut of lawful expressive activities.”
“The 2007 Act represents a permissible response by the Massachusetts Legislature to what it reasonably perceived as a significant threat to public safety,” Selya concluded. “It is content-neutral, narrowly tailored, and leaves open ample alternative channels of communication.”