U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down Massachusetts Buffer Zone

In a usupreme-courtnanimous decision, the Supreme Court made a narrow ruling Thursday that a 2007 Massachusetts law creating a buffer zone of at least 35 feet around family planning clinics that provide abortions violated the First Amendment.The opinion stated the law burdened “substantially more speech than is necessary to further the government’s legitimate interests” in protecting individual’s from harm. The ruling could affect similar laws that have been enacted across the country in response to increasing harassment around clinics.

The Massachusetts law was passed after escalating violence across the state resulted in a shooting rampage at two facilities in 1994. A recent survey shows 92% of facilities in the country are concerned about their patients’ safety approaching the facility. And it is no wonder;  since the 1970’s the incidence of terrorism at reproductive health clinics, including bombing, murder, attempted murder, arson, invasion, death threats, kidnapping, and acid attacks– to name a few, number in the thousands.

Though the court was unanimous in the outcome, Chief Justice Roberts joined the four liberal justices to only strike down the buffer zone on narrow grounds. The justices suggested the state should attempt to increase patient safety through smaller buffer zones or by law enforcement using less intrusive tools, including obtaining court orders. The Supreme Court said only Massachusetts’ specific buffer zone constitutes an infringement upon First Amendment rights.

Buffer zones are an important tool in protecting the individuals who seek care at reproductive health clinics – most of which offer a variety of preventive family planning services beyond abortion. Although the Court argues this ruling will affect only a very minimal number of clinics across the country – less than five currently have buffer zones as large as 35 feet – this ruling could impede state’s ability to fully protect the providers and individuals seeking reproductive healthcare. 

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