WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously struck down a Massachusetts law that barred protests near abortion clinics.
The law, enacted in 2007, created 35-foot buffer zones around entrances to abortion clinics. State officials said the law was a response to a history of harassment and violence at abortion clinics in Massachusetts, including a shooting rampage at two facilities in 1994.
The law was challenged on First Amendment grounds by opponents of abortion who said they sought to have quiet conversations with women entering clinics to tell them about alternatives to abortion.
The court was unanimous about the bottom line but divided on the reasoning. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote a relatively narrow majority opinion. He was joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. He suggested that the state could pursue other alternatives.
Justice Antonin Scalia, in a concurrence joined by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas, said the majority’s approach was too tentative. The law, he said, is “unconstitutional root and branch.”
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. filed a separate concurrence.
In 2000, the Supreme Court upheld a similar Colorado law in Hill v. Colorado. That law established 100-foot buffer zones outside all health care facilities, not just abortion clinics. Inside those larger zones, the law banned approaching others within eight feet for protest, education or counseling without their consent.
Massachusetts experimented with a similar law but found it inadequate.
In testimony before a legislative committee in 2007, Capt. William B. Evans, then a police commander and now Boston’s police commissioner, said the floating-bubble approach made his officers’ job impossible. “I like to make the reference of a basketball referee down there, where we’re watching feet, we’re watching hands,” he said.
The 2007 law at issue in the case, McCullen v. Coakley, No. 12-1168, did away with floating bubbles and the need to determine who approached whom and whether the listener consented. Instead, it bars everyone from entering or staying in fixed buffer zones around entrances to reproductive health care facilities.
There are exceptions for people going into or coming out of the building, people using the sidewalk to get somewhere else, law enforcement officials and the like, and clinic employees. The plaintiffs said those exceptions effectively favored speech from supporters of abortion rights.