Despite having their own 100-foot buffer zone of protection at the Court, the U.S. Supreme Court Justices unanimously struck down Massachusetts' state-wide 35-foot buffer around reproductive healthcare clinics in this country with their McCullen v Coakley decision today.
They have just announced that it is 'Open Season' on reproductive healthcare clinics in this country.
According to SCOTUS blog, where the decision was being reported live, the issue is about restricting free speech in public spaces: "A state can go beyond narrow laws that block obstructions to clinics, and more broadly ban abortion protests, only if it builds a record showing that the narrower measures don't work." (More at scotusblog.com)
I am a long-time clinic defense escort volunteer in cities from Los Angeles to Chicago to New York. The idea that the people standing outside clinics screaming and yelling, chasing people into the streets, surrounding medical transport vehicles and threatening staff are there for First Amendment expression reasons would be laughable if the potential for violence wasn't so real. They show up to intimidate patients and companions and terrorize communities.
More than 300 acts of violence were committed against reproductive healthcare clinics just between 2010 and 2012. That includes eight murders and seventeen attempted murders since 1991. More than 80% of facilities have called the police and National Abortion Federation members overwhelmingly report that buffer zones prevent violence and make staff and patients feel safer.
Apparently intimidation and terrorizing those seeking legal medical procedures is now an important First Amendment expression of "free speech", according to the Supreme Court Justices. The Court has weighed the safety of healthcare providers and American citizens against potential violence and has decided they aren't worried...
I invite them to visit a clinic on a Saturday morning --- the most heavily protested day --- or follow the escorts reporting on social media via #ProtectTheZone. Though, perhaps, they could have simply gone with Justice Scalia's wife, who is an outspoken, so-called "sidewalk counselor". No conflict of interest there for the un-recused, un-apologetic Justice.
While the decision does not automatically nullify existing buffer zones, it does put most of them at risk. If an ordinance or law is not specifically tailored to a clinic --- think restraining order-style --- there is a good chance a challenge from well-funded groups like Americans United For Life and the Pro-Life Action League will be heard and could jeopardize the small amount of protections some clinics are currently afforded.
Today's decision [PDF] doesn't reference Hill v. Colorado, which is bizarre considering that that buffer was the first to be enacted and first to be challenged (and upheld). Perhaps they didn't want to be quoted specifically referencing a 100-foot buffer.
As someone who has stood as a physical barrier between patients and shrieking picketers with bullhorns and graphic signs (as well as small babies made out of chocolate --- if you eat, you can't undergo anesthesia), this decision terrifies me. One part in particular is especially troubling: "Petitioners wish to converse with their fellow citizens about an important subject on the public streets and sidewalks-sites that have hosted discussions about the issues of the day throughout history," the Court wrote. "But here the Commonwealth has pursued those interests by the extreme step of closing a substantial portion of a traditional public forum to all speakers. It has done so without seriously addressing the problem through alternatives that leave the forum open for its time-honored purposes."
My doctor's office is not a public forum for you to air your political grievances. Full stop.
If polling places --- where presumably political action is occurring --- can have buffer zones, usually much larger than the 35-feet now prohibited by SCOTUS in Massachusetts, my doctor's office ought to be even more protected, as we recently discussed on Brad Friedman's KPFK/Pacifica Radio BradCast. I'm not advocating for polling place harassment, of course, but simply drawing focus to the ironic distinction between the private act of visiting a doctor and the democratic public act of voting. The latter act, the public one, is not a "public forum", apparently, while the former one, a private act, now is, according to the Court.
This from Justice Roberts shows the political motivations of the conservative Justices:
They want people to be allowed up in your face as you push your way through to the door of your doctor's office.
"Outside the buffer zones, protests can and do occur, so the law only regulates where people can stand, not what they can say," Martha Walz, CEO of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts said during a conference call with reporters earlier this year, prior to today's decision. "It takes about seven seconds to walk from the edge of the buffer zone to our front door. That seven seconds of not being harassed on the way to the front door makes a huge difference. ... [Previously], I remember one of the protesters just screaming at me, just inches away from my face, as I was in the facility doorway. It was scary."
What is motivating the presumed liberal Justices and champions of human rights to join with their Rightwing colleagues? We're going to have to wait for additional opinions and smarter legal minds than mine to wade through the many pages of the decision and history.
To find out more about what happens at clinics and --- if you're so moved --- to get involved in clinic defense, contact The Clinic Vest Project, where they can connect you to existing volunteer groups and/or provide you with free resources to start your own in your community.
With individual clinics now being burdened not only with fighting expensive legal battles against unconstitutional legislation, but also with petitioning municipalities to not be harassed, on-the-ground volunteers just became even more important. Standing with the clinics in your community --- even if that just means calling the police to report picketers, a tactic which has improved situations in several cities --- is vital. Don't ignore the violent rhetoric coming out of the anti-choice movement; it affects our politics and has reached our Supreme Court where they seem to be drinking the "Pro-Life" movement kook-aid.
We, unfortunately, are about to watch as buffer zones are struck down across the country, leaving healthcare providers and their patients even more vulnerable to violence. The support of the community just became the only defense the U.S. Supreme Court left standing.