The following are excerpts from editorials published in other newspapers across New England:
(Last) week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments challenging a 2007 Massachusetts law that created a 35-foot, protest-free buffer zone around the entrance to facilities where abortions are performed.
Past court decisions have upheld the right to impose modest restrictions on the exercise of free speech rights for reasons of public safety, but the court under Chief Justice John Roberts has yet to hear such a case. That has people who want to safeguard the constitutional right of women to receive health care services, including abortion, without having to run a physical and emotional gantlet of protesters to do so, worried. They should be. The new court’s majority could see the balance between First Amendment rights and the right to health care services free from harassment differently.
Striking that balance isn’t easy, particularly for those who, like us, consider First Amendment rights to be first among rights. No inhibition, let alone prohibition, of speech must be permitted for any but the worthiest reasons, and it must be as minimal as possible. The Massachusetts law meets that test.
The court’s decision will be important to the Concord Feminist Health Center and similar facilities. It’s been a few years since shouting, sign-wielding demonstrators waved rubber fetuses at women entering New Hampshire clinics, but the protests, and the national campaign to outlaw abortion, haven’t ended. At times, abortion protesters and women’s rights proponents clash. A Massachusetts-style law, should New Hampshire or its communities adopt one, would apply to all. No one, whether pro or con, could remain within the buffer zone to “counsel” patients, but anyone would be free to linger and engage in conversation outside the zone.
The law is neutral as to the content of speech within the zone and, unlike unreasonable requirements designed to keep protesters far from those they seek to address, does not prevent speech. Signs can be read and voices heard inside the buffer zone, but intimidating nose-to-nose confrontations are prevented.