Floating zones offer protection for all

by The Michigan

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court reopened an issue from the very front lines of the abortion debate.
The case in question deals with an injunction placed on anti-abortion protesters by the Federal District Court in Buffalo that created a floating 15-foot space around people and automobiles entering and leaving abortion clinics.
Protesters seeking to discourage a woman entering a clinic from having an abortion may enter within that space, but must withdraw when the woman indicates she has no interest in conversing with the protester.
Anti-abortion critics claim these kind of limits infringe on their First Amendment rights. However, these mobile zones do a service to both sides of the debate by protecting women seeking abortions from undue harassment and the possibility of physical violence — but without silencing the constitutionally protected voice of protesters.
Lawyers on behalf of an anti-abortion protester argued that a floating zone of any distance amounts to suppression of speech. Justice Steven Breyer countered that he was about 15 feet from the lawyers, and asked the lawyers to name “a word, expression or idea that you can only communicate to me when I’m closer to you than I am at this moment.”
Breyer’s argument echoes a ruling from two years ago when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Florida court that had placed a 36-foot buffer zone around a clinic. The ruling also supported laws creating quiet zones around hospitals and buffer zones around polling places. Protesters are free to express themselves as they see fit. The only restriction amounts to the space necessary to protect people entering abortion clinics.
Several justices have questioned the floating nature of the zone as an excessive limit. But the new buffer is the next logical step in protecting people in a debate that has, in recent years, escalated from argument to harassment and, in several notable instances, physical violence. People have the right to choose what they do with their own body, including a woman’s right to seek an abortion — and that difficult choice should not be hindered by verbal and physical assault.
The floating zone makes it clear that harassment is completely unacceptable.
One specific problem with this injunction is that it calls upon a woman to indicate that she does not want to attract protester attention before the 15-foot boundary goes into effect. A woman seeking an abortion is likely to be very scared and distraught, and walking through a horde of vehement anti-abortion activists is not going to assuage that fear.
Also, the woman may not know that she has to indicate her desire to avoid contact with protesters — and what constitutes an indication may be quite different for one side than it is for the other.
The ambiguity of what “indication” means must be removed, creating a floating zone that is flatly imposed on all entering or exiting abortion clinics. This will remove error as a factor in the enforcement and general understanding of this injunction.
Floating buffer zones do not limit the words that enter the 15-foot area, but they do restrict contact so that a woman’s right to choose is not limited by threats to her personal safety.