Eleanor McCullen, 77, has been standing outside of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston, Mass., every Tuesday and Wednesday for the past 13 years. Her hope, she says, is that she can somehow deter women entering the clinic from getting an abortion. But there’s one big obstacle to spreading her message: the 35-foot, state mandated “buffer zone” between abortion protesters and the entrance to the clinic. The case was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday. McCullen and her fellow plaintiffs contend that the buffer zones violate their right to free speech by preventing them from communicating effectively.
"It's America," said McCullen, according to NPR. "I should be able to walk and talk gently, lovingly, anywhere with anybody."
In McCullen v. Coakley, the plaintiffs are challenging the constitutionality of the law that created the buffer zones. However, the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts says that the law was enacted to protect the patients, staff, and passersby at the clinics. The law also solves the problem of demonstrators completely blocking public access to the clinics. It is not unlike other buffer zone laws, which protect people going to funerals, political conventions, and polling places. "There's even a buffer zone around the Supreme Court," said Marty Walz, a former member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, according to NPR.
If the Supreme Court decides in favor of the McCullen and her co-plaintiffs, it will reverse the Court’s decision in Hill v. Colorado, which held that the state’s restrictions of speech-related conduct was constitutional because it was “not a regulation of speech,” but rather “a regulation of the places where some speech may occur.” Justice Antonin Scalia, who still sits on the Supreme Court today, was particularly vocal about his dissent in that case. "Does the deck seem stacked?" he announced. "You bet. Our longstanding commitment to uninhibited, robust and wide-open debate is miraculously replaced by the power of the state to protect an unheard of right to be let alone on the public streets."
According to Reuters, a majority of the justices expressed concerns about the Massachusetts law being overly broad during oral arguments Wednesday. The problem is that the law doesn’t distinguish between protesters who seek to disrupt the clinic’s normal operation and those who wish to peacefully counsel women about their reproductive choices. Even Justice Elena Kagan, who is known to be a bit more liberal, said that the legislation “does have its problems,” referencing the 35-foot restriction.
A decision in McCullen v. Coakley is expected by June. In the meantime, McCullen will continue her persuit — even from 35 feet away — every Tuesday and Wednesday. "I go where the Holy Spirit leads me,” McCullen said.