Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution
On Thursday, June 26, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision in McCullen v. Cloakley that upheld free speech as guaranteed by the First Amendment, and it may well have consequences for other "buffer zones."
In 2007 the state of Massachusetts passed a law that created 35-foot buffer zones around abortion clinics. The law prohibited protesters and pro-life counselors from entering that zone to try to dissuade women from having an abortion. Those of the pro-abortion mindset felt put upon.
Pro-lifers said the law infringed upon their constitutionally protected First Amendment right to Freedom of Speech. Abortion supporters maintained that allowing people closer than 35 feet limited women's access to health care and threatened them. After hearing all the arguments and weighing all the facts, the court came to a unanimous decision protecting free speech and the right of peaceful protest.
Free speech, the First Amendment, and our Constitution won out. But Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards registered her protest of the decision as showing "a troubling level of disregard for American women, who should be able to make carefully considered, private medical decisions without running a gauntlet of harassing and threatening protesters."
For her part, Eleanor McCullen, defendant in the case, in a statement released by her attorneys said, "Today's ruling means I can offer loving help to a woman who wants it, and neither of us will go to jail for the discussion." She added, "I am delighted and thankful to God that the court has protected my right to engage in kind, hopeful discussions with women who feel they have nowhere else to turn."
Now that the court has struck down this law creating buffer zones, it could have far-reaching consequences regarding "free speech zones"; those areas set aside during presidential visits and other political functions. In those areas, sometimes including several surrounding blocks of the event, protesters may not gather, carry signs, or register their discontent with the powers that be, no matter how peaceful.
These free speech zones, the very antithesis of the name, truly contradict First Amendment guarantees. Now, I wait with bated breath for the next time the Secret Service or someone else in government sets up such a zone. I wonder if anyone will protest and cite this decision as precedent. This victory cannot allow us to rest, thinking our rights and our Constitution safe. We must remain vigilant against two great foes: intolerance and tyranny. We must nurture free and reasoned discourse at all levels on all subjects, because there is only one truth, and the free exchange of ideas is the only way to reach it.