Supreme Court Rules “Free Speech” More Important Than Safe Access to Abortions, Healthcare

Feature image via Fibonacci Blue/Flickr

The Supreme Court has struck down a Massachusetts law establishing a 35-foot “buffer zone” around abortion clinics, stating that it violated the free speech rights of the groups who often picket outside them. It also cast doubt on a prior Supreme Court decision, issued in 2000, upholding much smaller “floating buffer zones” in some states. Chief Justice John Roberts delivered today’s unanimous opinion, which focused on public streets and sidewalks as “traditional public fora” to which anyone should have access.

“Even today, they remain one of the few places where a speaker can be confident that he is not simply preaching to the choir,” Roberts said in the opinion. “With respect to other means of communication, an individual confronted with an uncomfortable message can always turn the page, change the channel, or leave the Web site.”

But the point for Massachusetts lawmakers, who created the law in 2007 to replace an existing 6-foot floating buffer zone, was to create a safe space for those who would change the channel if they could. Before the law was enacted, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley told NPR earlier this year, the 6-foot zone was not enough to protect those entering and leaving the clinic. “On a day-to-day basis there was an issue of safety, of people trying to get in the clinic being approached” and “physically harassed,” she said. Protesters would slip literature in through car windows as they drove by, and both pro-choice and anti-abortion groups would crowd walkways as patients and doctors attempted to get to clinic entrances.

So for every grandmotherly part-time prison chaplain who expresses her wish to “walk and talk gently, lovingly,” with those considering abortion, as this case’s lead plaintiff stated in January, there are dozens or even hundreds of anti-abortion protestors who show up with other motives. They’re there to intimidate and harass clinic patrons, whether by yelling about murder or pelting women with baby doll parts or videotaping everyone who enters the clinic or harassing building owners and their families even away from the premises. It’s hard to anticipate at what point passion for a cause will tip into outright aggression, but I should hope we can keep it at least 35 feet away from patients who are already facing a huge decision and being threatened and intimidated.

In contrast, here are a few places where it is illegal to stage a protest: in the Supreme Court plaza, outside polling places on election day, near funerals and at the Super Bowl. Public places like roads and sidewalks are generally open for picketing, but there are many cases in which that space becomes protected. And generally speaking, if your expression of free speech involves completely blocking a roadway or building entrance, you become a safety hazard and can be removed by the police. The idea that we should create safe zones where someone’s right to free speech can’t interfere with someone else’s right to freedom of action isn’t a crazy or unusual one. It’s one our government exercises all the time.

For all their talk of wanting to comfort and counsel scared women, anti-abortion groups do a whole lot of outright harassing. People who visit clinics report feeling intimidated and scared, even if they’re visiting for a reason other than abortion. The Massachusetts government tried to solve this problem not by shutting protesters up completely, but by moving them a little further away from clinics. They tried to create a space where fear and intimidation could be mitigated, and they did so specifically because the existing space was not being respected. By striking down the 35-foot buffer zone, the Supreme Court has told people that they do not in fact have the right to make a personal medical decision without facing harassment, ridicule and personal attack.

Women aren’t the only people who get abortions, but this news brings to mind some of the #YesAllWomen conversations about safety and self-determination in the face of aggression. Those who visit abortion clinics are asked to wade their way through crowds of people shouting at them, throwing things, videotaping them and calling them names. That hostility is directly triggered by an action they have taken, and they are told it’s what they deserve for making a certain decision. They are treated with suspicion and condescension, and their decision is thrown in their faces as if they don’t know its consequences. It’s enough to intimidate even someone who is completely confident in their decision to get an abortion, and enough to break someone who is even a little hesitant about the procedure.

Yes, people who oppose abortion are allowed to do so, and allowed to tell others that they do. But when their methods reach the level seen at clinics across the country, we must ask ourselves: Should their right to express an opinion supersede a patient’s right to safety, both physical and emotional? Unfortunately, today’s Supreme Court decision declares that for people who need to access an abortion, it does.

Before you go! Autostraddle runs on the reader support of our AF+ Members. If this article meant something to you today — if it informed you or made you smile or feel seen, will you consider joining AF and supporting the people who make this queer media site possible?

Join AF+!


Kaitlyn lives in New York, which is the simplest answer you're going to get if you ask her where she's from. She went to journalism school and is arguably making the most of her degree as a writer and copy editor. She utilizes her monthly cable bill by watching more competitive cooking shows than should be allowed.

Kaitlyn has written 69 articles for us.


  1. I’ve volunteered as a clinic escort (though not in Massachusetts), and I’ve seen firsthand (as have many others here I’m sure) what many anti-choice folks’ “free speech” consists of. Frighteningly, you just know there are anti-choicers out there who are gonna insist this ruling doesn’t do “enough.”

    It’s really disappointing.

  2. First of all, wtf Sonia and Ruth and Elena. WHAT THE FUCK. Get your shit together, ladies, and take a stand for your sisters. I know you don’t have to worry about getting knocked up anymore but surely you haven’t forgotten that feeling??? Ay dios mio.
    SECONDLY, and I tell this story all the time, but I used to work at Big Brother/Big Sister. It’s in the shitty part of town right next to the only Planned Parenthood within a huge radius, and at the time they weren’t performing abortions there because they couldn’t find a doctor willing to (I think they still aren’t, but I’m not sure). Even still, every single time I walked past the PP, there were people out with big signs with bloody fetuses on them and they’d yell at me. Me. The not pregnant, celibate at the time (’cause I was a closeted lesbian), practicing evangelical Christian at the time, working at Big Brother/Big Sister. I was not their “target audience.” They never recognized me, so I got yelled at a lot.
    It was that experience, along with my sisters’ abortions, that turned me pro-choice and pro-Planned Parenthood, and anti-“crisis pregnancy centers” that protest.
    God, I’m so angry. I think I’m even angrier that a dude wrote the opinion. He shouldn’t get an opinion on this.

  3. I tend to be a fan of really expansive interpretations of free speech, but this is some bullshit.

    As you said, these people aren’t looking to simply express their opinions. They want to harass and bully women from being able to enter clinics. They want to interfere with OTHER people’s rights to privacy and to equal protection, as guaranteed by the Supreme Court’s interpretation of Roe v. Wade. The 35-foot buffer zone was designed to ALLOW them to the right to speech without interfering with the clinic patients’ right to safely make it into get their abortions.

    Even here in ultra-blue Boston, I still see obnoxious protesters in front of my local Planned Parenthood, and getting in there is still like going through airport security.

    It particularly bums me out that this was unanimous; I can usually count on the right-wing dude wing to vote like this, but I’m bummed that the ladies on the Court also decided this way. Regardless, decisions like this and Citizens United show that, in spite of conservative blathering about left-wing “judicial activism”, it’s really the right-wing that is twisting the Constitution in order to support partisan interests.

    • Not only is it true that protesters aren’t just expressing their opinions…they’re trying to bully folks wanting to get abortions. But it’s also true that creating a buffer zone doesn’t actually prevent anyone from expressing their opinions.

  4. Also, I once flipped off the anti-abortion protesters in front of my local Planned Parenthood with both hands and yelled “May the fetus you save be gay!”

    Since I’m done with school soon, I’ll probably have to go there for my birth control (which even a lot of queer girls take for medical reasons). Guess that now that they’ve struck down my state’s buffer law, I’ll be making good use of those fingers again….

  5. It really amazes me sometimes when shit like this happens. Some states don’t allow protests within 300 feet of a funeral or burial ground because of the Westboro Baptist Church. In the grand scheme of things, the WBC is a joke and never actually physically harmed anyone. The anti-abortion nutjobs on the other hand… Tell me when the last time the WBC shot someone or even got physical with someone at a funeral? The pro-lifers do get violent and have killed people.

    Let’s see how quickly a 35 foot buffer zone gets enacted if people started protesting outside the offices of urologists who perform vasectomies.

  6. The thing that I have to keep reminding myself is that this isn’t about “justice” or someone’s “right to freedom of speech”, it’s about someone having enough time and money to bring this issue up to the Supreme Court. A law that was working well has been challenged on the basis that it violates someone’s freedom of speech and was found to do so. There should have been balance in that decision but there wasn’t. So we have to make new laws and keep fighting back for people to have physical and emotional safety when making an already tough decision. Not to mention people who are going into clinics to access affordable health care.

    That’s what I posted on my facebook wall. I wanted to sound ok and hopeful but instead I just want to cry and scream and cry some more. Abortion rights were my first activism. In middle school I watched my mother make signs supporting a woman’s right to choose and talked to her about what it meant. When I was in elementary school I went with her to a clinic where she was getting an abortion because she could barely afford to take care of me. She made wise compassionate choices.

    The people who protest at clinics don’t want to “counsel” the want to scream and rage and force their unexamined beliefs down the world’s throat. It’s ridiculous and awful that their right to do so was held more important than someone else’s right, as Kaitlyn put it, to safety, both physical and emotional.

Comments are closed.