Attorney General Martha Coakley said yesterday that a new law restricting antiabortion activists from standing within 35 feet of an abortion clinic's entrance did not violate their right to free speech.
Coakley filed a brief in federal court in response to a lawsuit filed last month by antiabortion activists, who oppose the new restriction, saying it violates their constitutional right to protest on a public sidewalk.
She was reiterating the position she took when she testified last year before the Legislature in support of the broader zone of protection around clinics.
The "act does not ban any expressive activity, but instead 'merely regulates the places where communications may occur' during clinic business hours," Coakley wrote in the brief.
The "suggestion that under the act 'leafleting and solicitation [are] completely banned from public places' is incorrect," the brief said. ". . . Plaintiffs, and everyone else, may continue to hold signs, pray, sing, chant, leaflet, converse, and engage in any other kind of lawful speech so long as they do so from outside any buffer zone."
The new law became necessary, Coakley wrote, because clinic patients and staff have been routinely harassed by protesters as they enter clinics.
She could not be reached last night for comment.
The prior law, enacted in 2000, said that protesters within an 18-foot radius of a clinic entrance must stay at least 6 feet away from patients unless an individual consents to the encounter. Antiabortion activists said the new law, which went into effect in November, goes too far.
"This buffer zone is unprecedented," said Michael DePrimo, the Connecticut lawyer representing the plaintiffs. "I'm not aware of one of this magnitude anywhere. I am confident the court will find the buffer zone unconstitutional."
DePrimo said that he has also worked with antiabortion activists to challenge a 20-foot buffer zone in West Palm Beach, Fla., and that the court there has issued a preliminary injunction lifting the ban. A final ruling in the case has not been issued, he said.
Angus McQuilken, vice president of public affairs for the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, defended the new law and praised Coakley's response. He said the rule put the safety concerns of patients first, adding that some abortion protesters took to wearing hats and T-shirts resembling police uniforms that gave the impression they had police authority.
"For too long, patients and staff had to endure in-your-face screaming and harassment just to get to doctor's appointments," he said. "This 35-foot zone is more than reasonable."
He said that a 36-foot buffer zone at Florida abortion clinics was also recently upheld.
William Cotter, president of Operation Rescue Boston, which organizes area antiabortion protests, said activists dressed as police were never sanctioned by his organization and have stopped. He also said that most abortion clinics have surveillance cameras and police details to safeguard patients.
"If the kind of crimes are taking place that they say, the harassment, intimidation, they should have a whole library full of footage and prosecute people for it," he said. "All that behavior is illegal already."
Megan Woolhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.