Abortion protesters can confront patients

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court bolstered the free-speech rights of protesters outside abortion clinics Wednesday, ruling they can confront patients on public sidewalks as long as they stay at least 15 feet away from clinic entrances.
The court did not strip abortion clinics and patients of the considerable protection granted in recent years against violence and intimidation. But the justices said a federal judge went too far in restricting anti-abortion demonstrators in the Buffalo and Rochester, N.Y.. areas.
The judge in New York had ordered protesters to stay 15 feet away from any clinic patient or staff member, no matter where they were. But the justices voted 8-1 that such “floating buffer zones” violate rights guaranteed by the Constitution’s First Amendment.
“They burden more speech than is necessary,” Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote for the court.
By a separate 6-3 vote, the court upheld a “fixed buffer zone” that keeps demonstrators at least 15 feet away from clinic doors and driveways.
The court, also by a 6-3 vote, upheld that portion of U.S. District Judge Richard Arcara’s order requiring so-called sidewalk counselors who approach patients within the fixed buffer zones to retreat when patients indicate a desire not to be counseled.
But no such duty to retreat exists outside the 15-foot fixed buffer, the court said. Rehnquist’s opinion discounted “any generalized right to be left alone on a public street or sidewalk.”
That one line may be turn out to be good news for union pickets, gay-rights activists and other protesters, though their causes were not mentioned in Wednesday’s decision.
Anti-abortion forces hailed the ruling as a major victory. “There is no longer an exception to … free speech … when the issue deals with abortion,” said Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice. “The court has sent a resounding message that you cannot silence a message you disagree with.”
The Feminist Majority Foundation’s Eleanor Smeal emphasized the court’s continued support of efforts to protect access to clinics. But she added, “If the … decision emboldens anti-abortion extremists to engage in more violence and harassment at clinics, the striking down of the … floating buffer zone could not have come at a worse time.”
In other matters Wednesday, the court:
–Said police can order all passengers, not just the driver, out of vehicles stopped for routine traffic offenses. The court ruled 7-2 in a Maryland case that concern for police safety justified what it considered a minor intrusion on passengers’ privacy.
–Heard arguments in a key religious-freedom dispute from Texas over the constitutionality of a 1993 federal law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, aimed at enhancing Americans’ religious freedom.
–Ruled in a Florida case that states cannot cancel prison inmates’ early-release credits after giving them in an effort to ease prison overcrowding.
The nation’s highest court reaffirmed the right to abortion in 1992. Since then, its focus largely has been on protesters’ tactics during a time that has seen many violent acts at abortion clinics, including five killings.
In Wednesday’s decision, the court adopted something of a case-by-case approach to judging restrictions imposed on clinic demonstrators — a tack unlikely to end disputes over the sometimes-fine line between free speech and harassment.