www.mozilla.com Weather Central
Voices
Headlines

A note on primitivism -1/29/2015, 9:55 AM

Owning ideas -1/29/2015, 9:55 AM

There's more -1/29/2015, 9:55 AM

Kansas' birthday -1/29/2015, 9:55 AM

Back to the future, locked and loaded -1/28/2015, 9:29 AM

Compromise -- make it happen -1/28/2015, 9:29 AM

Faith v. facts -1/28/2015, 9:29 AM

Counting on Les -1/27/2015, 9:22 AM

Building bills in the Legislature -1/27/2015, 9:22 AM

Tale of the tree -1/27/2015, 9:22 AM

Seismic activity -1/27/2015, 9:22 AM

Where are the good guys? -1/27/2015, 9:21 AM

Brownback's budget -1/26/2015, 9:59 AM

Committee meetings begin -1/26/2015, 9:50 AM

Excitement starts at Capitol -1/26/2015, 9:50 AM

What's happening with oil prices? -1/26/2015, 9:50 AM

Synthetic biology, brave new world -1/26/2015, 9:50 AM

Today's fierce urgency is voter mobilization -1/25/2015, 5:02 PM

Duke, Muslims and politics of intimidation -1/25/2015, 5:02 PM

Right to hunt -1/25/2015, 5:02 PM

Pipeline: Foreign profits, American risk -1/23/2015, 7:47 AM

Social Darwinist 'Christianity' -- Chapter 3 -1/23/2015, 7:47 AM

Kiwanis generosity -1/23/2015, 7:47 AM

The state economy -1/22/2015, 10:23 AM

Restate of the union -1/22/2015, 10:23 AM

France needs our First Amendment -1/22/2015, 10:23 AM

Repurposing Washington -1/20/2015, 9:31 AM

March for Life -1/20/2015, 9:31 AM

Brownback, the budget and schools -1/20/2015, 9:31 AM

Sensible checks are no assault on gun rights -1/19/2015, 9:50 AM

Jeb Bush chooses expedience on marriage issue -1/19/2015, 9:50 AM

The State of the State Address and the legislative session -1/19/2015, 8:47 AM

Spending's not the culprit in budget woes -1/18/2015, 3:32 PM

Pilgrim's paradise -1/18/2015, 3:32 PM

Spring elections -1/18/2015, 3:23 PM

Kobach is back -1/16/2015, 3:04 PM

More with Les -1/16/2015, 10:03 AM

Understanding Hooper -1/16/2015, 10:02 AM

Basic economics -1/16/2015, 10:01 AM

Female governance -1/15/2015, 9:37 AM

2015 energy policy -- a unique opportunity -1/15/2015, 9:37 AM

The better option -1/15/2015, 9:36 AM

'Wall Street' a waste -1/14/2015, 2:50 PM

Trade already -1/14/2015, 2:49 PM

No media bias? -1/14/2015, 2:48 PM

Retirement funds -1/14/2015, 2:47 PM

Redefining public education in Kansas -1/13/2015, 10:06 AM

What the future holds -1/13/2015, 10:06 AM

Efficient education -1/13/2015, 10:06 AM

Terrorists usher in the 'End of Satire' -1/12/2015, 9:14 AM

Sexuality, lame logic, substandard science -1/12/2015, 9:14 AM

A tragic family story -1/11/2015, 12:11 PM

For freedom, LGBT rights, a year of decision -1/11/2015, 12:11 PM

Roberts' promotion -1/11/2015, 12:11 PM

FHSU campaign -1/11/2015, 12:11 PM

Fairness in U.S. -1/9/2015, 3:05 PM

Liberals' use of black people -- Part II -1/9/2015, 9:09 AM

Social Darwinist 'Christians' -- Chapter 2 -1/9/2015, 9:09 AM

Taxing situation -1/9/2015, 9:09 AM

Trust: Society depends on it -1/8/2015, 9:55 AM

Education schools lack a paradigm -1/8/2015, 9:55 AM

Congress convenes -1/7/2015, 10:07 AM

Simple way to fix gridlock: change committees -1/7/2015, 10:06 AM

Kansas is your customer -1/7/2015, 10:06 AM

Large budget shortfalls await solution -1/6/2015, 10:06 AM

The state and funding K-12 education -1/6/2015, 10:06 AM

Tree removal -1/6/2015, 10:06 AM

Republicans won -- now what? -1/5/2015, 9:13 AM

Social Darwinist religion, Chapter 1 -1/5/2015, 9:13 AM

Liberals' use of black people -1/2/2015, 9:53 AM

Ignorance abounds -1/2/2015, 9:53 AM

Superbug dilemma -1/2/2015, 9:53 AM

Thanks North Korea -12/31/2014, 1:26 PM

Sony gets the last laugh -12/31/2014, 1:26 PM

Free speech -12/31/2014, 1:16 PM

New Year's resolutions -- sort of -12/31/2014, 9:22 AM

A flat-footed backflip for Wall Street -12/31/2014, 9:22 AM

Dim the lights -12/31/2014, 9:22 AM

Some near-sure bets for the new year -12/31/2014, 9:21 AM

Adios, Rick Perry -12/30/2014, 8:20 AM

Budget strife means high-anxiety session -12/30/2014, 8:20 AM

Time for caution -12/30/2014, 8:20 AM

-12/29/2014, 10:01 AM

Court's raw deal -12/29/2014, 10:01 AM

Chris Christie's pork barrel politics -12/29/2014, 10:00 AM

A Festivus Miracle -12/27/2014, 4:18 PM

Faith, not politics, keeps Christ in Christmas -12/27/2014, 4:18 PM

EPA rule falls short -12/27/2014, 4:18 PM

2014: The year in Kansas higher education -12/26/2014, 9:39 AM

Methane from cattle -12/26/2014, 9:39 AM

Black progression and retrogression -12/26/2014, 9:38 AM

Up-Lyft-ing Christmas tale -12/25/2014, 1:22 PM

Terrorism on soft targets -12/25/2014, 1:22 PM

Story of Christmas -12/25/2014, 1:22 PM

Fabricated column -12/24/2014, 8:21 AM

The Christmas spirit dwells in us all -12/24/2014, 8:21 AM

Celebrating life -12/24/2014, 8:21 AM

A visit from St. Nicholas -12/24/2014, 8:21 AM

A look ahead to the Legislature -12/23/2014, 9:34 AM

There is a Santa Claus -12/23/2014, 9:34 AM

myTown Calendar

SPOTLIGHT
[var top_story_head]

Protests over the protests at abortion clinics

Published on -1/19/2014, 8:12 AM

Printer-friendly version
E-Mail This Story

Few topics in modern life have produced as much rancorous and visible public debate as abortion -- and one hot point of contention today is simply how close that debate might take place to the clinics that perform them.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday about a challenge to a Massachusetts state law, in McCullen v. Coakley, that creates a fixed, 35-foot "buffer zone" around the entrance or driveways of such clinics, forbidding protesters and others from entering the zone, with the exception of women seeking medical services, workers at the clinic, police and those merely walking to somewhere else.

The law at issue is rooted, its advocates said, in years of conflicts around such clinics in which protesters battle -- verbally and sometimes more -- and where women are harassed or even blocked as they attempt to enter. They argue pro- and anti-abortion demonstrators still can state their views, just not in proximity that's likely to intimidate anyone.

On Wednesday, Justice Elena Kagan questioned the size of the Massachusetts zone, saying she was "a little hung up on why you need so much space." Justice Antonin Scalia remarked that rather than bar all speech in the 35-foot zone, perhaps just a ban on swearing and screaming could be used.

But those in opposition to the law being challenged say that, as applied, it illegally targets only the speech of anti-abortion forces, and creates a constitutional conundrum in which listeners' rights are favored over those of speakers, while offering no reasonable alternative for anti-abortion groups to effectively deliver their message. On Wednesday, justices also noted not all those at clinics to oppose abortion are protesting: Many are there to offer a calm presentation of their views.

Similar arguments were raised about a Colorado buffer zone law upheld by the court in 2000, in Hill v. Colorado -- its last main ruling on the issue. The Colorado statute set out a 100-foot area around health care facilities, and forbade anti-abortion protesters inside such areas from coming closer than 8 feet to anyone for the purpose of counseling or protesting -- a so-called "floating buffer zone."

A 1994 federal law forbids violent actions, obstruction, interference and intimidation outside abortion clinics -- in other words, it governs conduct, not the message. Challengers to both the Colorado and Massachusetts laws said those more-restrictive state statutes have it the wrong way around, targeting just anti-abortion speech, while those supporting abortion rights are free to move within the zones and to speak to women as they enter and leave clinics.

Generally, the First Amendment precludes government from considering "content" or "viewpoint" when regulating speech. Massachusetts officials said a history at such clinics of confrontation and violence justifies overriding that general limitation, in the name of public safety.

There are other significant First Amendment issues raised in this case and in the earlier Hill decision, including a proper balancing of what some call "a right to be let alone" vs. free speech rights of speakers on sensitive or even offensive matters.

The essential point of laws banning protests near such clinics is to shelter women seeking information or abortions from the emotional distress produced by often-graphic language, signs, handouts and "in-your-face" tactics used by anti-abortion forces, who see such actions as the final opportunity to reverse a decision to end a pregnancy.

And the equally basic First Amendment question raised is whether protection of "vigorous public debate" about significant issues in our society can be muzzled because of the undeniable distress it causes some women who hear -- or are challenged by -- that debate.

A clue as to how the court might view McCullen can be found in a 2011 ruling in which emotional distress to the listener also was a core issue, involving protesters at a funeral service for a U.S. Marine killed in the line of duty. In that case, Snyder v. Phelps, the father of the fallen Marine sued a group known as Westboro Baptist Church over its virulently anti-gay signs and visible picketing at his son's funeral.

In an 8-1 decision, the court upheld the Westboro group's right to protest and to use the most-effective place and manner of free speech, as long as it did not physically disrupt the services, and even if it caused pain to the Snyder family.

"The principle (is) that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide-open," Chief Justice John Roberts said in the majority opinion. "The First Amendment protects our right to express ourselves, and the depths of our opinions and emotions, in the most strident terms," he wrote. "Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and -- as it did here -- inflict great pain ... (but) we cannot react to that pain by punishing the speaker. As a nation, we have chosen a different course, to protect even hurtful speech on public issues to ensure that we do not stifle public debate."

Nothing about the national debate over abortion is simple -- and that applies at times to even the words and manner we use in talking about it.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute's First Amendment Center.

gpolicinski@newseum.org.

digg delicious facebook stumbleupon google Newsvine
More News and Photos

Associated Press Videos

AP Breaking News