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Supreme Court To Revisit Mass. 'Buffer Zone' Law

The U.S. Supreme Court has decided to reconsider the constitutionality of a 2007 Massachusetts law that bars protests within 35 feet of abortion clinic entrances, exits and driveways.

The justices agreed Monday to hear an appeal from abortion opponents who want the law thrown out, saying it violates their free speech rights.

The law allows individuals to cross into the buffer zone only to enter or leave the clinic or reach a destination other than the clinic.

Abortion opponents who regularly stand outside clinics in Boston, Worcester and Springfield claim the law unfairly keeps them from engaging patients in conversations at a closer distance.

"The buffer zone deals with only one kind of facility, it only deals with abortion clinics ... and at those facilities it only deals with some kind of people," said Anne Fox, president of Massachusetts Citizens for Life, which opposes the law, saying it is narrowly tailored to suppress the speech of abortion opponents.

"It's in opposition to the First Amendment," she added. "We have great hopes that it will be overturned."

Supporters of abortion rights, however, say the law is critical to ensure the safety of women entering the clinic and of staff working at the facilities.

"People seeking health services should be able to do so without fear of violence, harassment or intimidation," Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts President Martha Walz said in a statement Monday.

NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts Executive Director Megan Amundson said the law "balances the need to protect women accessing care with the First Amendment rights of protesters who, even after the passage of this law, are still able to protest abortion clinics."

The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law this year, saying it protects rights of prospective patients and clinic employees "without offending the First Amendment rights of others."

The court, upholding a district court decision, acknowledged the country is "sharply divided" on abortion, but said "the right of the state to take reasonable steps to ensure the safe passage of persons wishing to enter health care facilities cannot seriously be questioned."

The Supreme Court justices will reconsider the appeals court decision.

Attorney General Martha Coakley said she looks forward to "defending this vitally important legislation" before the nation's highest court.

"The Massachusetts buffer zone law strikes the appropriate balance to ensure a woman's right to safe access to health care facilities while preserving First Amendment rights," Coakley said in a statement Monday.

The law was first approved by state lawmakers in 2000 and expanded in 2007.

Activists began pushing for a buffer zone law after John Salvi walked into two Boston-area clinics in 1994 and opened fire, killing two receptionists and wounding five others. He killed himself in prison in 1996.

Gov. Deval Patrick signed the expanded bill in 2007. That law created so-called hardened 35-foot buffer zones that bar protesters from stepping past lines drawn around the entrances, exits and driveways of abortion providers. Protesters say that at some clinics, the 35-foot zones force them into the street.

The 2007 law replaced an earlier Massachusetts law that mandated 6-foot floating buffer zones around patients within an 18-foot radius of a clinic entrance.

The earlier law survived a similar legal challenge when a federal appeals court upheld it and the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

This program aired on June 24, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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