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Does Buffer Zone Ruling Protect Sidewalk Speech or Harassment?

Pro-life demonstrators outside the US Supreme Court following oral arguments in the case of McCullen v. Coakley, in Washington, DC, January 15, 2014 // SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

This week’s Supreme Court decision in McCullen vs. Coakley struck down the fixed-distance “buffer zone” around abortion clinics in Massachusetts. Irin Carmon wrote “The ruling disappointed abortion rights advocates, but it did not surprise them,” noting that when the court agreed to take the case in the first place, pro-choicers were worried.

The law that has been struck down originated after a gruesome, fatal clinic shooting in Brookline. On Twitter, the hashtag #protectthezonebegan to swell with stories from clinic escorts and former patients, detailing menacing, violent harassment they and visitors to clinics had experienced, justifying why a buffer zone was necessary. All this evidence — much of which can be found in Erin Matson’s [wrenching Storify(]https://storify.com/erintothemax/experiences-with-clinic-defense-and-clinic-escorti) — is important. It’s true that harassment of abortion patients is both frightening and out of control.

But what really riles me up is the double standard. In almost every instance of a powerful person needing protection from lawful, First Amendment-protected speech, via a buffer zone, the buffer zone stands. In fact, the Supreme Court itself has a large buffer zone in which protests are not allowed. And in my own New York City, during Occupy and political conventions, protesters were frequently cordoned off behind barricades in amusingly-named “free speech zones.” This disparity, ultimately, is the rub. Because of moneyed and political elites can be protected from protesters, why are defenseless women left to the wolves, so to speak, who have a proven track record of violence? The First Amendment is sacrosanct, Jill Filipovic writes, but “the day-to-day reality at abortion clinics is that speech bleeds into violence and often comes at the expense of women exercising their fundamental right to bodily autonomy and reproductive choice.” And the word from clinic escorts is that the police who are supposed to enforce existing laws don’t always step up the way they might, for instance, when asked to protect shuls on the high holidays. This is due to both stigma about abortion and about women in public space — we’re routinely harassed for walking down the street, remember?

Imagine how we would feel if people going to synagogue to exercise their right to freedom of religion were routinely picketed, harassed, proselytized by other religions, and threatened with violence — and local cops were indifferent? Surely some sort of reasonable space restriction would be warranted. Regulated abortion is as legal as walking to pray, and patients deserve the same right of safe passage as anyone else seeking entrance to a building. If we’re going to allow unlimited sidewalk speech, then the folks behind the bench at the Supreme Court should welcome protesters right up to their own doorstep.

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