Supreme Court Watch: Buffer Zones Protect Women From Violence When Attempting to Exercise Their Constitutional Rights: McCullen v. Coakley

By Meghan Maury, Policy Counsel, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force

When I was in high school, my older sister was living in Jamaica Plain, a funky little section of Boston that I thought was pretty much the coolest place in the world.  I wanted to visit her every weekend. It seemed like everyone for a fifty mile radius was progressive, feminist, and queer-friendly. Every year, I’d travel to her apartment for New Year’s Eve, and we’d traipse around the city’s First Night celebration, listening to music, looking at ice sculptures, and occasionally stilting in the parade. It felt exciting, fun, and safe.

In 1994, First Night felt different. Boston collectively mourned the loss of two young women, Shannon Lowney and Lee Ann Nichols. Both women worked as receptionists, answering phones and checking in clients, at health clinics about a mile and a half from one another. On December 30, 1994, both were shot with a .22 caliber rifle by John Salvi III, because the clinics where they worked performed abortions.

Massachusetts lawmakers responded to this horrific crime by enacting a “buffer zone” law, which aimed to protect people entering or leaving an abortion clinic. That law was strengthened in 2007, over the objections of anti-choice activists, who argued that the buffer zone was “choking off information to the woman.” Today, the Supreme Court hears a challenge to the current buffer zone law.

The argument against the law is grounded in the freedom of speech. Anti-choice advocates claim that the law prevents them from adequately exercising their first amendment rights. Their argument ignores both the purpose of the law and the existing legal framework.

The law exists to stop people like Salvi from hurting and harassing people like Lowney and Nichols. And in case you weren’t aware, the danger hasn’t passed:

  • Anti-choice violence remains alarmingly common.  In the last few years, abortion providers have faced arson, acid attacks, and even murder.
  • 92% of providers in a recent survey report concerns about patient safety in the areas approaching their clinic
  • At 71% of survey facilities, patients reported difficulty entering the facility during the last two years

At the same time, buffer zones work:

  • 51% of facilities with buffer zones reported a decrease in criminal activity near the facility after the buffer zone was instituted
  • 75% of responding facilities with buffer zones stated that the zones improved patients and staff access to the facilities

The Constitutional framework supports the pro-choice position here.  States have a right to impose what are called “time, place, and manner” restrictions on free speech. Those restrictions must have some legitimate, neutral purpose, like preventing violence or keeping residential neighborhoods quiet at night.

Buffer zones are in use in other contexts, and they are used to safeguard the exercise of other fundamental rights. They are what allow us to vote, attend religious services, and go to school in relative peace. Just like buffer zones around polling locations protect voters from intimidation by political workers, buffer zones around reproductive health care facilities protect women from intimidation by those opposed to abortion rights.

Roe v. Wade affirmed that we have a right to an abortion. In McCullen v. Coakley, the Supreme Court has the opportunity to reaffirm their decision and safeguard the exercise of that fundamental right.