by Aaron Earls
While religious liberty advocates have to wait until next week for a Supreme Court ruling on the Hobby Lobby case, pro-life advocates were granted a free speech victory with a unanimous decision striking down Massachusetts’ 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics.
The 2007 law kept protestors away from the buildings and potential patients, but all nine justices ruled the state was violating the First Amendment and restricting free speech.
While Massachusetts argued the buffer was needed to protect workers and others entering the clinics, the court rejected their reasoning. “The buffer zones burden substantially more speech than necessary to achieve the Commonwealth’s asserted interests,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts, who penned the ruling in McCullen v. Coakley.
Not surprisingly, pro-life groups were mostly pleased with the decision.
Charmaine Yoest, president and CEO of American’s United for Life, said, “In a brazen affront to the First Amendment, Massachusetts government officials had sought to use the threat of arrest and criminal conviction to silence those offering women life-affirming alternatives to abortion. The Supreme Court rightly rejected this unlawful attempt to deny pro-life Americans their First Amendment rights.”
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said he was thankful that the court recognized the “freedom of speech and freedom of dissent.”
“Those of us who are pro-life have constitutional guarantees embedded in the First Amendment, along with everyone else,” he said. “This was a good decision, and I am cheered that it was a unanimous decision.”
But, as Tom Goldstein of SCOTUSblog explained, the ruling is relatively narrow. “The court make clear that states can pass laws that specifically ensure access to clinics. It holds that states cannot more broadly prohibit speech on public streets and sidewalks.”
Managing editor of Christianity Today, Ted Olsen tweeted his own reservations about the ruling.
Might want to wait before celebrating that SCOTUS decision on buffer zones. Protesters got very little of what they wanted.
— Ted Olsen (@tedolsen) June 26, 2014
Another critic of the ruling came from a perhaps unlikely place—the court itself. Justice Antonin Scalia wrote a concurrence that criticized the court for not going far enough in their protection of free speech.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy joined with Scalia, who began his opinion by referencing other rulings that have limited the free speech rights of pro-life protestors.
“Today’s opinion carries forward this Court’s practice of giving abortion-rights advocates a pass when it comes to suppressing the free-speech rights of their opponents,” he wrote. “There is an entirely separate, abridged edition of the First Amendment applicable to speech against abortion.”