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This photo taken Dec. 17, 2013 shows anti-abortion protester Eleanor McCullen, of Boston, left, standing at the painted edge of a buffer zone outside a Planned Parenthood location in Boston. With her pleasant demeanor and grandmotherly mien, McCullen has become the new face of a decades-old fight between abortion opponents asserting their right to try to change the minds of women seeking abortions and abortion providers claiming that patients should be able to enter their facilities without being impeded or harassed. William Cotter of Operation Rescue looks on at right. / Steven Senne, AP

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court steps into the dangerous minefield of abortion protests Wednesday when it takes up a challenge to Massachusetts' 35-foot buffer zone around reproductive health clinics.

Judging from the court's last foray on the subject in 2000, at least three justices are likely to oppose the law as a violation of free speech, and several more votes are in doubt. Given the justices' high regard for the First Amendment, the Bay State's law - twice upheld by lower courts - could be in jeopardy.

The Colorado buffer zone upheld by the court in a 6-3 ruling 14 years ago was just 8 feet deep. In 2007, Massachusetts officials erected a zone around abortion clinics more than four times as large, citing past violence and disruption outside a Planned Parenthood facility in Boston.

By keeping protesters 35 feet away from clinic doors but allowing clients and staff easy access, the law discriminates based on viewpoints and "indiscriminately criminalizes even peaceful, consensual, non-obstructive conversation and leafleting," opponents argue in their brief.

Those opponents are led by 77-year-old Eleanor McCullen, who has sought for years to waylay women on their way to getting abortions by offering advice and alternatives. "May I give you my literature?" she frequently begins by asking.

On the other side is state Attorney General Martha Coakley, who contends that the state's 2007 law is content-neutral, narrowly tailored, and not aimed at any particular message. The state argues in its brief that the law was needed to end violence and blockades outside abortion clinics; in 1994, two clinic employees were shot and killed.

The law is "justified solely by legitimate government interests in public safety and health care access," the brief states.

Marty Walz, a former state representative who sponsored the law and now leads Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, says the yellow line marking the buffer zone is just seven seconds from clinic doors. Nevertheless, she says, it has led to "peaceful coexistence" outside the clinics.

But Megan Brown, an appellate lawyer at Wiley Rein, says the law would be considered "pernicious" if it didn't apply to abortion.

While the statute is backed by abortion rights groups and opposed by conservatives, the battle lines aren't always clear. The AFL-CIO has sided with opponents; the American Civil Liberties Union says the law is defensible in general but should be reconsidered in practice.

Moreover, the court has a handful of First Amendment cases pending this term, some brought by conservatives and others by liberals. On one side, major cases involving the freedom to contribute more money to political candidates and to deliver sectarian prayers at government meetings are backed by conservatives. On the other, liberals are backing the rights of protesters who opposed space-based weapons at military facilities and a campaign trip by President George W. Bush.

Kannon Shanmugam, a frequent Supreme Court litigator, has said the court's 2000 decision in Hill v. Colorado is the most likely precedent to get overruled during this term. But doing so could throw into question other buffer zones, such as those outside polling places, funeral services -- and the Supreme Court's own plaza.

New York Solicitor General Barbara Underwood, who argued Hill when she was in the solicitor general's office, says the court's decision to consider lower court rulings upholding the Massachusetts law may indicate that "the whole idea of buffer zones is up for grabs."



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: High court to consider buffer zones at abortion clinics

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