In a victory for abortion protesters, the Supreme Court ruled that demonstrators have a free-speech right to confront pregnant women on the sidewalks outside clinics and to strongly urge them not to go ahead with the procedure.
In Wednesday’s mixed decision, the justices struck down a New York court’s attempt to create “floating” 15-foot buffer zones around patients going to and from clinics, but they upheld the power to ban protesters from blocking clinic doors and driveways.
Abortion-rights groups took solace that the court had reaffirmed a landmark 1994 decision upholding the right of local authorities to control anti-abortion demonstrations in the interest of public safety and a woman’s individual rights.
“With today’s ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed that women and health care workers are entitled to enter … facilities without fear of harassment,” Nicki Nichols Gamble said in a statement from the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts. “However, … our concern for our patients and staff extends farther than 15 feet.”
But a divided court gave anti-abortion forces a victory in striking down part of the New York ruling that allowed the buffer zones around patients, saying the constitutional guarantee of free speech allows shouting, leafleting, arguing, and other forms of expression even when they annoy and disturb people.
“Leafleting and commenting on matters of public concern are classic forms of speech that lie at the heart of the First Amendment, and speech in public areas is at its most protected on public sidewalks, a prototypical example of a traditional public forum,” the Supreme Court ruled in a decision written by Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
“In public debate our own citizens must tolerate insulting and even outrageous speech in order to provide adequate breathing space to the freedoms protected by the First Amendment,” the Supreme Court ruled.
The case decided Wednesday, Schenck vs. Pro-Choice Network, was prompted by a series of demonstrations in upstate New York in 1990 in which Operation Rescue and other groups tried to block the driveways and doors of abortion clinics. The court found that women seeking abortions were surrounded, grabbed, pushed and yelled at, and local police were harassed.
By a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court upheld part of the New York injunction that kept protesters 15 feet from the clinic and its driveways.
Voting in the majority were Rehnquist, Justices Stephen G. Breyer, John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O’Connor, David H. Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Dissenting, as they had in the 1994 case, were Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas.
In other action Wednesday, the court ruled 7-2 that police officers can order passengers as well as drivers out of vehicles during traffic stops. Attorney General Janet Reno successfully argued the case herself before the court in January.