Massachusetts Attorney General Claims 35-foot Clinic Barrier Supports Freedom of Speech

The Massachusetts Attorney General responded to a pro-life challenge to a 2007 buffer zone law on Wednesday, claiming that the law does not violate free speech in any way.

Martha Coakley, Attorney General of Massachusetts, filed a brief in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, opposing Operation Rescue Boston's claim that the new law violates free speech. Coakley said in her brief that the law did not violate free speech, because the law did not prohibit what could be said, just where it could be said.

"The Act has the effect of imposing reasonable restrictions on the time and place of speech in small areas around clinic entrances and driveways," reads the brief. "Because those restrictions 'are justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech, . . . are narrowly-tailored to serve a significant governmental interest, and . . . leave open ample alternative channels for communication of the information,' as shown below, they do not violate the First Amendment."

The previous law, enacted in 2000, stated that protesters must stay 18 feet away from clinic doorways and 6 feet away from patients. Protesters were only allowed to approach a patient if the patient consented to an encounter.

The new law, signed by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick on November 13, 2007, bars anybody from entering or remaining inside a 35-foot buffer zone, starting at the clinic door. The only exceptions to this law are people not intending to go to the clinic, clinic personnel, and municipal or clinic employees.

Coakley claims, as does Planned Parenthood, that the law is in place to provide adequate security for patients using the clinic. Operation Rescue contends that the law goes too far, as it prohibits peaceful protests to take place on public sidewalks.

"The new state law mandating 35-foot buffer zones around abortion mill entrances in Massachusetts is unprecedented in the USA – all other buffer zones were by injunction or city ordinance," Bill Cotter, President of Operation Rescue Boston, told today. "Enacted in the name of 'public safety,' it has as much to do with public safety as abortion has to do with health care. Instead, it represents a usurpation of our public sidewalks by the state on behalf of private child-killing businesses, for the sake of suppressing the pro-life message."

"Massachusetts' buffer zone statute is an important change to the law and enhances public safety and access to medical facilities, while preserving the right to engage in expressive activity on public ways and sidewalks near clinics," said AG Coakley in a press release.  "In recent years, reproductive healthcare facilities have been the scene of mass demonstrations, congestion, blockades, disturbances, and even murders.  The previous buffer zone statute was a step in the right direction, but was difficult, if not impossible, to enforce."

"This buffer zone is unprecedented," said AFA lawyer Michael DePrimo, who is representing Operation Rescue. "I'm not aware of one of this magnitude anywhere. I am confident the court will find the buffer zone unconstitutional."

DePrimo has also worked with pro-life protesters to remove a 20-foot buffer zone in West Palm Beach, Florida. Despite the fact that a final ruling in the case has not been issued, the court in Florida has issued a preliminary injunction lifting the ban. DePrimo emphasized the endangering of pro-life free speech in that case.

"Pro-life expression near an abortion clinic went from being a First Amendment right to a crime," said Cotter. "In response to our federal challenge, the Attorney General in her reply memo claims that the state is not trying to ban speech, only where that speech may take place! The challenge is currently in the US District Court in Boston, where we are cautiously optimistic regarding a favorable outcome."

The Attorney General's Office said that it expects that the court will schedule a hearing on the Motion for a Preliminary Injunction in the near future.

Read the Attorney General's Brief Filed in the U.S. District Court.

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