Monday, March 10, 2014
Maine has joined 12 other states in filing a “friend-of-the-court” brief that asks the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold a Massachusetts law establishing a 35-foot buffer zone around reproductive health care clinics.
A pedestrian walks past anti-abortion protesters on Congress Street in Portland near the Planned Parenthood clinic on Oct. 4. Maine’s attorney general and her colleagues from 12 other states have signed onto a “friend-of-the-court” brief in support of protest-free buffer zones outside reproductive health clinics that provide abortions.
Shawn Patrick Oulette / Staff Photographer
The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case on Jan. 15, according to a press release issued Monday by New York state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman.
“States have a strong interest in ensuring that citizens have full and safe access to necessary health care,” Schneiderman wrote.
The buffer zone in Massachusetts can be traversed only by individuals seeking access to a clinic or by those passing through the zone on their way to another destination.
The Massachusetts law is similar to one adopted last week by the Portland City Council. Portland councilors voted to create a 39-foot buffer zone around the entrance to Planned Parenthood of Northern New England on Congress Street.
Soon after the council’s vote, Maine Attorney General Janet T. Mills came out in support of Portland’s buffer zone. Mills could not be reached on Monday, but her office issued a statement last week explaining her position and why she was joining the friend-of-the-court brief.
“A woman has the right to access health care without fear and harassment,” Mills said in the statement. “The Massachusetts statute simply seeks to enhance public safety near reproductive health care facilities by establishing a clear and valid framework for any protected free speech activities that others seek to exercise in the vicinity.”
The Supreme Court’s ruling in the Massachusetts case could decide the fate of Portland’s new limits on anti-abortion protesters.
Massachusetts’ law bans people from remaining within 35 feet of the entrances of facilities that offer or perform abortions.
A federal District Court in Massachusetts held that the law was constitutional, and an appeals court affirmed that ruling.
Protesters in Portland have said they will sue the city for violating their constitutionally protected free speech rights, although they had not filed anything as of Monday.
A group of 10 to 20 protesters has stood outside the entrance to the clinic on Friday mornings for the past year, and sometimes on other days, as well. They hold signs promoting adoption and showing enlarged pictures of fetuses in the womb and bloody body parts from abortions. They also have handed out anti-abortion pamphlets and spoken to women entering the clinic, or to people passing by.
Leslie Sneddon has protested outside Planned Parenthood for 18 months.
Sneddon said the city’s new buffer zone has not had as great an impact as some might have thought. She can still stand on the sidewalk on the same side of the street as the clinic, and she talks to passers-by and hands out leaflets. But she must stand outside the 39-foot buffer zone, which is marked by an orange stripe painted on the ground and a sign warning people about the zone.
“We are abiding by the law,” Sneddon said.
Sneddon said Monday night that she is not aware of any protesters filing a court challenge to the buffer zone. That could change, depending on what happens at the U.S. Supreme Court, she said.
In the meantime, protesters are counting how many people entering and leaving the clinic they are unable to talk to. They are also filming clinic activity, Sneddon said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine has tried to remain neutral on Portland’s buffer zone.
“Buffer zones are a complicated issue because of the need to uphold both the right of the protesters to free speech and the right of the patients to access their health care unimpeded. Courts have traditionally upheld buffer zones similar to the one in Portland. I’m sure all sides will be watching to see what the Supreme Court decides in Massachusetts and how that decision will apply here at home,” said Rachel Healey, a spokeswoman for the ACLU of Maine.
The Portland City Council approved the buffer zone on Nov. 18, and the ordinance took effect immediately, forcing the protesters to stand across Congress Street or 39 feet to either side of the clinic last Friday. The council argued that the buffer zone allows freedom of speech by the protesters while protecting patients’ rights to get health care without intimidation or harassment.
Portland’s ordinance technically bans people from remaining in the buffer zone except for certain specific reasons, such as waiting for patients to escort into the clinic. A police officer enforced the buffer zone while protesters were present on Friday morning, although it does not appear to be enforced when protesters are not present.
The written arguments filed by the state attorneys general call for the court to allow states to regulate the protesters.
“The Supreme Court should ensure that states are able to appropriately respond to the unique factual circumstances faced in their state in seeking to ensure safe access to reproductive health facilities, while also protecting all forms of speech and expressive conduct,” Schneiderman said Monday.
The 12 other states joining Schneiderman’s brief are California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont and Washington. The coalition is also joined by the Territory of the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at: