Clinic buffer zones face legal challenge

Abortion foes file suit in US court

Email|Print| Text size + By Martin Finucane
Globe Staff / January 19, 2008

Antiabortion activists have filed a legal challenge against a new state law that expanded the buffer zone keeping protesters away from abortion clinics, saying the 35-foot zone violates their free-speech rights.

The law is "an unconstitutional regulation designed and intended to ban virtually all citizens from engaging in fundamental rights and liberties on significant portions of public sidewalks and streets" adjacent to abortion clinics, the lawsuit, filed Wednesday in federal court, charged.

"Our perspective is: We're talking about lives at stake," said Bill Cotter, president of Operation Rescue: Boston. Several people active in the group are among the plaintiffs in the case.

A spokesman for the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, which runs three clinics in the state where abortions are provided, defended the new law in an interview.

"This law strikes the appropriate balance between free speech and the right to access health services free from violence, harassment, and intimidation," said Angus McQuilken, vice president of public affairs for the group.

The old law, enacted in 2000, said that, within an 18-foot radius of a clinic entrance, protesters must stay at least 6 feet away from patients unless the individual consents to a closer encounter. The new law bars protesters from coming closer than 35 feet from the entrance.

McQuilken said that the old law was "ineffective and unenforceable" and that patients and staff at clinics had to endure "intense, in-your-face harassment on a daily basis."

The conditions have now improved, he said. "This is a law that's meeting the purpose for which it was passed."

Kelly O'Bryan, political director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, said the new law has made a striking difference.

"It's a scene that's far less threatening," she said.

But Philip D. Moran, a Salem lawyer who is part of the legal team representing the five plaintiffs in the case, said the old law worked "fairly well," while the new law is too restrictive and creates a buffer zone that's too large.

"We just feel that, in this case, the Legislature's gone too far," he said. "Anything this extensive, we have good law on our side to get it overturned."

Representative Carl Sciortino, a Democrat from Medford who was one of the bill's chief sponsors, said that he believed the bill was constitutional.

Sciortino pointed out a decision by the US Supreme Court upholding a 36-foot buffer zone in Florida.

He said that the Massachusetts bill had passed overwhelmingly in the Legislature.

"This measure is a public safety measure, and it's meant to protect those entering clinics," Sciortino said.

"We are aware of it. And we intend to defend the statute," said Emily LaGrassa, spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, which was named as the defendant in the suit.

The plaintiffs are also seeking a preliminary injunction barring enforcement of the law.

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