US top court strikes down abortion clinic buffer zone

Anti-abortion protestors sing as they await the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on a Massachusetts law that mandated a protective buffer zone around abortion clinics, outside the Court in Washington on June 26, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Anti-abortion protestors sing as they await the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on a Massachusetts law that mandated a protective buffer zone around abortion clinics, outside the Court in Washington on June 26, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Buffer zones around abortion clinics in the state of Massachusetts were deemed unconstitutional Thursday by the US Supreme Court on grounds that they limit freedom of expression.

The Massachusetts law struck down by the high court had required protesters to stay at least 35 feet (10 metres) from the entrances to clinics that provide abortions. Thursday's ruling could have implications for other US states that have similar "buffer" legislation.

The high court ruled unanimously that the 2007 Massachusetts restriction violates the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which ensures freedom of expression.

The law, the court said in a decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts, "restricts access to 'public way[S]' and 'sidewalk[S],' places that have traditionally been open for speech activities." The decision acknowledged that the buffer zones had served Massachusetts' "legitimate interests in maintaining public safety on streets and sidewalks." But at the same time, it said, "they impose serious burdens on petitioners' speech, depriving them of their two primary methods of communicating with arriving patients: close, personal conversations and distribution of literature." Seven anti-abortion advocates led by plaintiff Eleanor McCullen appealed the case to the Supreme Court.

Anti-abortion advocates have set up long-running protests outside many clinics.

In some instances, demonstrators have brandished pictures of aborted fetuses, handed out informational pamphlets and suggested alternatives to abortions to women arriving at clinics.

In extreme cases, there have been violent attacks on staff and doctors. Two doctors who provided abortions were killed in 1994 in Massachusetts.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest reiterated the administration's support for the Massachusetts law, saying it believes that first amendment rights were protected.

"Women have a right to get the health services they need without any fear of harassment or intimidation," Earnest said.

"We also support any efforts by Massachusetts to pass a new buffer zone law that addresses the very narrow concerns that the Court identified in today's decision."