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Federal Judge Upholds “Buffer Zones” in Massachusetts: Free Speech is a Little Less Free Today

  • Curt Lovelace,
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Americans who value the lives of unborn children, as well as those who cherish the rights afforded by the US Constitution took another hit on Wednesday, July 9. On that date, a federal judge proclaimed that a Massachusetts law restricting prayer and protests in “buffer zones” around abortion clinics is constitutional. U.S. District Judge Edward F. Harrington opined that, “The plaintiffs have failed to offer any legal authority to support a ruling that the act is unconstitutional.”

The buffer zone law was modeled after a Colorado law which has been upheld by the US Supreme Court. The law states that within an 18-foot radius of entrances and exits to abortion facilities, one cannot approach within six feet of a person for purposes of leafleting, protest, education, or counseling. In some instances, according to pro-life witnesses, law enforcement officials have included hymn-singing and praying the rosary among the banned activities.

"Basically you have to keep your distance and can't approach someone for communicative purposes," said Dwight Duncan, a law professor and lead counsel in the effort to overturn the law. Duncan, who has not given up on the case, according to published reports, claims that the Massachusetts law is vulnerable even though it is based on the Colorado law. The reason for this, he told Ed Oliver, of the Massachusetts News, is that the Massachusetts law contains exemptions to the buffer zone restrictions.

Employees, for instance, can approach the potential client for purposes of pro-abortion counseling. Abortion clinic “escorts” are also allowed to “pick up” the clients anywhere in the vicinity of the facility, without regard for buffer zone limits. Another exemption exists for people entering and exiting the abortion clinic. In Oliver’s view, “This means boyfriends can approach and intimidate the little old ladies who pray outside clinics and they can get in the face of other pro-lifers, etc.”

Passage of this bill in 2001 in the Great and General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was predicated upon a fear of violence at abortion clinics. Its preface even mentions the 1994 killings of two persons at abortion facilities by John Salvi. Despite the fact that the pro-life community around the nation decried the violence committed by Salvi, pro-abortion activists seized upon that isolated act and turned it into a cause.

While safety for even those who choose to work at abortion clinics should be a concern, this sort of political muzzling by legislation is wrong and counterproductive. As one frequent sidewalk counselor stated it, the creation of buffer zones will “not prevent violent acts at clinics but would instead restrict those who wish to be a peaceful, positive influence.”

What the liberal and Democrat-dominated legislature of Massachusetts has created are free-speech-free zones. They have imposed a gag order on one segment of society. They have imposed the political will of the immoral upon the moral. No such buffer zones have created around churches to protect clergy and parishioners from pro-homosexual, pro-same sex marriage protestors. Such activists have been known to invade sanctuaries during worship services and throw condoms into the pews.

There are no protective bubbles erected around Christian and conservative speakers when they arrive for engagements. Where are the lawmakers who are concerned when morals-based speechmakers are shouted down?

Such laws are only aimed at one segment of our society – the pro-family, pro-life, pro-morality crowd. Such laws are not likely to deter the righteous who feel that it is their duty to inform people of the moral significance of abortion. Speaking at a rally before passage of the bill in 2001, State Representative Mark Carron (a Democrat) pointed to the small group of people on their knees praying, on the grass near an abortion clinic driveway. He said, “After today if this [proposed law] makes these people non law-abiding citizens, then Massachusetts has too many laws.” He went on to point out that, “This is not an abortion issue. It is a civil rights issue.” He also said that such a law was much more likely to create a safety hazard than to eliminate one. Besides the issue of activists being moved into the street, he said, there is a danger when you “paint people too far into a corner. They may feel that they need to take more radical steps” to be heard.

Republican Representative Paul Frost appeared at the same podium with eight-week old daughter Emily. He said that it was her first political appearance. Looking down the road a few years, Frost said that passing such a bill, Massachusetts would be “creating a situation in which by a simple amendment of action by the court this could be expanded to include many groups of Americans.” It’s not just pro-life advocates who should fear this bill, but all freedom loving Americans, he emphasized.

This fact was not missed by activists of a more liberal bent. Even the American Civil Liberties Union Of Massachusetts, seldom an ally of pro-life activists, filed a brief, when this bill was heard by a legislative committee, stating that, “Senate 148 violates the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Articles XVI and XIX of the Declaration of the Rights of the Commonwealth.” The brief also states that, “If the message is unwelcome, as it often will be outside abortion clinics, the constitutionally appropriate response in a public forum is for the listener to walk away.”

  • Curt Lovelace

Curt Lovelace is a small town pastor and a student of history. He has finally moved to Maine where, when asked if he would like to declare a political affiliation on his voter registration card, he politely declined.

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