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Abortion Clinic Buffer Zones Aren’t About Restricting Free Speech

My head is spinning on this one, folks.

You’ve likely heard of McCullen v. Coakley. Or if that doesn’t sound familiar, perhaps you’ve heard that the Supreme Court is hearing a case that could cost Massachusetts abortion clinics their buffer zones, and potentially impact similar buffer zones across the country. If you haven’t heard about this, trust me, it’s going on right now. Or don’t trust me. Google that shit.

A buffer zone around an abortion clinic is an area in which protesters are not allowed, and these buffer zones may overlap with public areas like sidewalks. In Massachusetts, the zone is 35 feet. An image in the New York Times shows the zone for one Planned Parenthood. It’s, like…itty bitty. Super itty bitty. Anyone entering the Planned Parenthood via that entrance is going to pass right through or very close to legal protest areas, and they’re going to have ample opportunity to converse with protesters…if they choose to do so. If they don’t want anything to do with protesters, they can be assured that their walk to the clinic doors will at least be physically unimpeded.

The kerfuffle being raised by abortion protesters before SCOTUS is that buffer zones restrict free speech. All of the hypotheticals, the what-ifs…it all boils down to us nasty baby murderers TAKING AWAY THEIR FREEZE PEACHES! Because jebus help them if they can’t be all up in a client’s business until the second the client enters the clinic. They gotta have those last seven seconds to have their one-sided “gentle and peaceable conversations about abortion” with a client who has repeatedly told the protester to leave them alone. And apparently their free speech isn’t as effective if they can’t be close enough to smell the sin emanating from a client’s skin.

Oral arguments started yesterday. I’ve been reading SCOTUSblog to keep up with the case (yay for In Plain English!). All sorts of brain-sploding arguments are being made – and not just from McCullen and her lawyers. In one instance, Justice Antonin Scalia expressed that he doesn’t think that abortion protesters are protesters. He is quoted as saying that “they don’t want to protest…they want to talk to women about abortion.”

Are you fucking kidding me?

It drives me up the wall when protesters protest that they aren’t protesters, that they’re “sidewalk counselors” who “just want to have a conversation with women about their options”:

THESE are not conversations about options:


These are not conversations about options:

Protect the Zone

Don’t kill your baby! is not a conversation about options.

The abortionist doesn’t care about you – he only cares about your money! is not a conversation about options.

A real man wouldn’t let his woman have an abortion! is not a conversation about options.

Black woman who abort are participating in the genocide of their race! is not a conversation about options.

These are protests against abortion. The protesters are there to protest abortion. They want to protest it right into client’s ears, into their faces, over their shoulders. They want to protest it through their car windows and into their hands and at their companions.

This isn’t about free speech. No one is worried that the government is “banning” this kind of speech because the government finds it disfavorable. Maintaining this law that has been on the books since 2007 isn’t going to lead to the government banning free speech in other public areas in new and dystopian ways. Protesters currently have the right to spout their message. They still have access to patients. They are not being oppressed. Striking down buffer zones won’t change a thing for protesters except they’ll get to do all these things while they invade a patient’s personal space.

Upholding the constitutionality of buffer zones would mean that that clients in Massachusetts won’t have to walk through the middle of “conversations” like this to get in to see a medical doctor:

This video was taken outside of a clinic in Louisville, Kentucky. As you can see, Kentucky doesn’t have a buffer zone law in place to protect abortion clinic patients, employees or volunteers. You can learn more about this video at


  1. angharad says

    One of the states in my country recently extended the buffer zone around abortion clinics to 150m, and the exact same arguments about freedom of speech were wheeled out.

  2. jamessweet says

    I don’t think we should shy away from the fact that this is indeed regulating free speech. (My choice of italicized word was very careful there) Whether the buffer zone applies to you is contingent on what message you are expressing — how does that not relate to free speech? It limits what you can say in a particular zone. That pretty much directly relates to freedom of speech….

    But like I say, I chose my words carefully there. There is a difference between regulation vs. infringement. I think it would be very difficult to argue that a teensy buffer zone of a mere 35ft constitutes an infringement. Even in regards to wider buffer zones, such as the 150m one that angharad mentions, that can be justified if it is shown that there is a pressing need to do so (and the vile actions of anti-abortion protesters has made it crystal clear that there IS a pressing need for such a buffer).

    Yes, this is a limitation on free speech, and I don’t think we do ourselves any favors by denying that. But it is a reasonable and bounded one. The purpose behind the limitation is clear, and as you point out, it does not suppress the actual expression of the message. Still, limiting the venue in which a message can be expressed does relate to free speech.

    • eoleen says

      Yes, speech can, under certain circumstances, be regulated. In fact, some unregulated speech should and can (not always will) be punished.

      Try shouting “FIRE” in a public theater. That was the example Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes used.

      And the “Free Speech” that these people wish to engage in often involves physically grasping the person addressed and detaining them.

      In some states – I believe my home state (NY) – is one, people can carry pepper spray for self protection. I would advise all those who believe that they may be assaulted on their way into a clinic to carry and be prepared to use it. After all, the Supreme Court has ruled that “Speech” is not necessarily vocal…

  3. Codi Johnson says

    This whole issue just illustrates to me who the really devious, duplicitous players in this are. Anti choice people—the people who don’t understand the concept of separation of church and state; who are ready to infringe on the free speech of any group they disagree with—are suddenly all really concerned with the first amendment? And the utter hypocrisy of Scalia…wow! He IS aware, is he not, that the buffer zone at the supreme court, where he lives, is EIGHT times bigger, and the SCOTUS has no real history of violent attacks on the building or the people going in and out of it, whereas, I doubt there is any set of buildings in the US that have been more consistently under violent attack than abortion clinics.

    I like this piece and I hope it helps in some way derail the devious attempts to subvert R v W.

    • Julie LeDuc says

      Its a good thing that your mother chose LIFE. You wouldn’t be around for anyone to read your comments if she chose Abortion. Just something to think about. Praise Jesus that she did the right thing. Your free will is yours to comment as you will. My only comment is, good for your mom for choosing life. She obviously thought your life was priceless. Someday you will think its priceless too. Your in my prayers.

  4. says

    Codi makes a great point about other buffer zones. If this buffer zones falls, how can you limit free speech to other zones in other situations? Will protesters at conventions no longer have free speech zones? Protesters at funerals?

  5. lorn says

    Two points:

    First, there is a claim that here is no choice in a Planned Parenthood clinic. Bull, patients, right up until the time a procedure is actually underway, is free to leave. With one eye toward the legal time limits, thanks anti-choice folks, patients are encouraged to take their time and consider all options.

    Second, I always find it ironic that a woman can be pregnant for weeks and the anti-choice folks only get concerned for her well being when she get close to a clinic where she might get an abortion. It is only in those last few meters and last few minutes that those people suddenly feel the need to talk to her. Fact is that the anti-abortion people are easy to get in touch with. The woman has 24/7 to look them up and have a heart-to-heart if she chooses to. Having implicitly rejected that option the people she has ignored, and who have ignored her, she is then forced to have an encounter merely because she happens to be walking by the front door to a family planning clinic.

  6. stever says

    Grabbing a woman to harangue her isn’t speech, it’s battery, and it should get the “sidewalk counselor” a police baton upside the head and a quick trip to arraignment court.

  7. Numenaster says

    Buffer zones are indeed a regulation of speech, and as Codi and One Brow points out, somehow the SCOTUS doesn’t object to them when the speech being regulated might inconvenience the honorable court. I’m all for consistency–let’s reduce the SCOTUS buffer zone to the size of clinic buffer zones. I’ll be generous–they can use the average of all the buffer zones defined in states that have such.


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