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Mass. abortion clinic's 'protest free' buffer zone headed to Supreme Court

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Outside of a Planned Parenthood abortion clinic in Boston, protester Eleanor McCullen braves freezing temps to counsel and educate women visiting the clinic. But Eleanor is always cognizant of where she is – her activism must stay behind a painted yellow line 35 feet from the abortion’s entrance. If she breeches the buffer, she could be arrested.

Eleanor is now taking the “yellow line” fight to the Supreme Court, says a report Sunday from The Associated Press via USA Today. The 77-year-old has become a touchstone for unconstitutional infringement on free speech, which she says is being violated by Mass. state laws.

The law says that protestors cannot be within 35 feet of the building. Unlike similar proximity rules – like “no smoking within 25 feet” signs – which are rarely respected, clinics have painted yellow lines around their buildings that must be adhered to.

“McCullen has become the new face of a decades-old fight between abortion opponents asserting their right to try to change the minds of women seeking abortions and abortion providers claiming that patients should be able to enter their facilities without being impeded or harassed,” writes the AP report.

The Supreme Court has already heard a similar argument from the state of Colorado. In 2000, the Hill v. Colorado decision upheld Colorado’s “buffer zone” in a ruling that renowned First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams recently called “what may well be the most indefensible First Amendment ruling so far this century.”

Planned Parenthood workers and state officials say the 35-foot zone – which took effect in 2007 – is absolutely necessary to ensure the protection of staff and patients. Prior to 2007, protesters would stand directly in front of the doors and block the entrance, forcing people to “squeeze” by and harassing visitors, many of whom were there to discuss other matters altogether.

Planned Parenthood centers offer health exams for women, cancer screenings, tests for sexually transmitted diseases and birth control.

Marty Walz, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts and lead sponsor of the 2007 law, said: “We're concerned for patient and staff safety if the current law is overturned.”

Walz says safety at the clinics is paramount. Workers are told not to allow themselves being photographed because they fear reprisal from anti-abortion activists who would put their faces online – a so-called “black list” of targets. Other employees are granted special vehicle registration permits to keep their information private.

Mark Rienzi, the Catholic University law professor who represents the protesters, says that if someone were intentioned to harm the clinic or its workers – such as the 1994 gunman who killed two receptionists at the Planned Parenthood facility in nearby Brookline – a painted yellow line in the parking lot is not going to deter them. Meanwhile, Rienzi says it is impinging on free speech rights.

“The idea that someone like that will be deterred by a painted line on the ground is nonsensical,” Rienzi says.

“The public sidewalk has effectively been made private property,” said Bill Cotter of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue. “Unless I'm quick enough to make it around the perimeter of the buffer zone, I don't have the opportunity to talk to people face to face or put a leaflet in their hand.”

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