A buffer zone for women's clinics Supreme Court: Ruling upholds fixed buffer zone, but protects protesters' rights.

February 24, 1997

BESIEGED BY ANTI-ABORTION protesters, staff members and clients of women's health clinics have reason to cheer the Supreme Court's recent decision upholding buffer zones in which "sidewalk counselors" who try to dissuade women from entering the facilities can attempt to talk to them.

By a 6-3 majority, the court endorsed a fixed buffer zone around clinic entrances, driveways and parking lots targeted by aggressive demonstrators. By a similar majority, the Court expressed its strong disapproval of aggressive and violent tactics employed by many demonstrators -- including elbowing, grabbing or spitting on clients, and what the court called "in-your-face" yelling. The ruling also requires protesters to back away once the people they are addressing indicate, either verbally or by gesture, that they want to be left alone.

Abortion rights supporters were pleased with that ruling. But the court gave the protesters a victory as well, by striking down a New York judge's requirement of a floating buffer zone around anyone entering or leaving such a facility. Only one dissenter, Justice Stephen G. Breyer, felt that the floating zone did not pose an undue restriction on the free-speech rights of demonstrators.

Notably, even such strong abortion-rights supporters as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice John Paul Stevens agreed with the majority. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote that a floating buffer zone prevented protesters from handing out leaflets or engaging in normal conversations, "classic forms of speech that lie at the heart of the First Amendment."

The right to protest is intrinsic to American liberty. But the physical and verbal abuse, escalating at times into deadly violence, that has been directed at women's health clinics that perform abortions is also a serious infringement on the rights of people who work at those facilities or use their services. In these rulings, the court has offered a sensitive and nuanced approach to balancing the rights of both sides in these situations. That is an encouraging development for everyone.

Pub Date: 2/24/97

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