Do we have “buffer zones” in our lives? Decisions are coming out of the Supreme Court about the constitutionality of various laws but something can be constitutional and still be a bad idea. The ruling is based on the complaints of street counselors who felt that they have a First Amendment constitutional right to personally talk with and give literature to patients going into a women’s health facility that provides abortion services. While I can agree with the Supreme Court decision on rational grounds, I have to question whether or not it is right that these “street counselors” should be trying to give advice to someone that clearly didn’t ask for it. I hate it when I get unsolicited advice from people, even friends. Is it just me? In fact, I’ve become quite rude about it. If someone calls me on my phone at home offering to sell me anything, I hang up the phone. When people come to my door with a petition, or selling me something, I point to the “No Soliciting” sign and close the door. However, when a young lady is walking into a clinic after making what could be the most difficult decision of her life, how does she “hang up the phone” or “close the door“?
The Supreme Court unanimously struck down a buffer zone law in Massachusetts at abortion clinics. Apparently, they felt that the law was a restriction on the free speech of the anti-abortion “street counselors.” The buffer zone law limited the petitioners’ free speech rights to “counsel” patients arriving at the clinic. There will be plenty of reactions to this decision over the next couple of days and then we’ll move on to other concerns. You’ll hear about the atrocities at abortion clinics that caused the state law makers to impose the law. You’ll also hear crowing from the religious right about their win. Our very own Center for Arizona Policy (CAP) just posted coverage on the decision and, as you might guess, they’re calling it a “victory.” They also posted a very handy link to the Supreme Court opinions. The document is 52 pages long but much of it is repetitive. Before we get too emotionally invested in the back and forth of this issue, we should sit down and take a few minutes to read the Supreme Court’s decision and I thank the CAP for posting the link.
By the way, I saw a headline that said, “CAP President To Matt Lauer: ‘It Isn’t The 1950s Anymore.'” It confused me for a second until I found out that CAP in this case was referring to the Center for American Progress which has a mission almost in direct opposition to the mission of the Center for Arizona Policy. I was impressed with their page on Faith and Progressive Policy: Proud Past, Promising Future. It contains stories where people of faith are working together with others to reduce political tensions between secularists and the religious. I was reminded of the book by our House Representative from AZ District 9, Kyrsten Sinema. The book is Unite and Conquer: How to Build Coalitions That Win and Last
and talks about finding the common goals of diverse groups.
On that note, I recommend reading the Court’s opinion before making a decision on the wisdom of the ruling. There is a lot of discussion about the message content of the buffer zones and the fact that the buffer zones do provide public safety. However, the ruling was made from the point of view and the arguments of the petitioners who were “sidewalk counselors,” not protestors. The free speech rights of the petitioners to converse and distribute hand bills was unnecessarily suspended in the buffer zones since there were other ways to ensure that the clinics remain accessible and safe. In effect, the Supreme Court sent the state legislature back to the drawing board for laws that would provide safety and accessibility without stifling the First Amendment rights of the petitioners. Petitioners believe that they can only accomplish their objective of informing women of various alternatives to abortion through personal, caring, and consensual conversations and the buffer zones prevented them from that.
The Court did not accept that there was no other way to address the problem of providing access and security around women’s health care facilities that provide abortions. They were unconvinced by arguments made by Massachusetts that less restrictive alternatives to the buffer zones were tried and shown to be ineffective.
Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito expressed a concurring but slightly different opinion on the Massachusetts statute. They agree with the opinion of the Court but found that the law should be stricken due to it not being content neutral and opined that it was unnecessary to evaluate whether the law was “narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest.”
Indeed, the Freedom of Speech is a very important principle and worth protection. The courts looked at the First Amendment restrictions caused by an overly broad application of law and found the law unconstitutional. The court found that painting a line on the sidewalk may be an easy solution but doesn’t justify its effect on the First Amendment rights of the petitioners. The judgment is in and the buffer zones as defined by the Massachusetts statute are unconstitutional.
I can agree with the logic of the decision. However, it’s not right for these “street counselors” to be harassing young women. There are times I wish we had portable buffer zones. Are anti-harassment laws enough? We have a universal sign that tells the world that we are choking. Do we have one that says, “Help, I’m being harassed!”?