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Do abortion clinic buffer zones protect public safety or restrict free speech?

January 15, 2014 at 6:18 PM EDT
Pro-choice advocates believe buffer zones around abortion clinics are necessary to prevent harassment and targeted violence, while opponents feel their free speech rights are being restricted. Judy Woodruff hears both sides of the debate from Steven Aden of Alliance Defending Freedom and Ilyse Hogue of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And today’s arguments were, of course, closely watched by advocates on both sides of the abortion debate.

And we turn to two of them now.

Ilyse Hogue is president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. And Steven Aden is vice president of human life issues for the Alliance Defending Freedom, which funded this case on behalf of the abortion protester.

We thank you both for being here, too.

Ilyse Hogue, to you first. Why is this case important?

ILYSE HOGUE, NARAL Pro-Choice America: Well, it’s incredibly important, because we have tracked a movement that actually relies on harassment and intimidation and even violence. Your footage showed the most extreme example of — there was a doctor shot outside trying to enter his clinic in Florida in the 1990s.

And I think what is important is recognizing that we do balance free speech with public safety all the time. And, in fact, Mrs. McCullen, who seems to be perfectly lovely, made her own point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The woman who is bringing the case.

ILYSE HOGUE: Yes, made her own point when she said the women do stop and talk with her. What she wants is more time.

And so there is nothing that prevents any woman who wants to spend more time with the protesters educating themselves from staying there. What there is, is a public safety need to enforce civil access to the reproductive health centers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Steve Aden, from your perspective, why does this case matter? What is important about it?

STEVEN ADEN, Alliance Defending Freedom: Well, I agree it is a very important case, Judy.

And the pro-life movement, of which I’m a part and my organization is a part, completely renounces that kind of violence, but that was a long time ago. What we have here is a grandmother who wants to gently and peaceably talk to women about their options, which they won’t here in the Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston ordinarily.

But what the — the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has done is drawn a literal line in the sidewalk, a line of exclusion around that speech, and said, this far and no further. The sidewalks, the public parks, from the beginning of this country, have been the place where there is the most protection for free speech.

And this law actually is the first law of its kind that the Supreme Court has encountered where all speech has been banned on a public sidewalk. And that’s very dangerous. For a state to have the power to ban the kind of speech that it opposes just because it opposes it is very dangerous. It could do that to any speech.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ilyse Hogue, it is the case that not every state — in fact, there are many states that don’t have this kind of barrier.

ILYSE HOGUE: Yes, it’s only three that do have it, yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, why isn’t it — why is this one so special?

ILYSE HOGUE: Well, I think we’re debating this one because it is up in front of the Supreme Court.

Look, we have been hearing all week from women who have tried to access clinics, clinic staff, clinic escorts, who say they’re not in protected zones. They get spit on. They get shoved off sidewalks. They get people touching them, obstructing them, saying horrible things in their face.

So it is a problem nationally. And the concern is that if the court shows tolerance for this kind of harassment and intimidation, even though we have seen…

JUDY WOODRUFF: And shrinks the barrier.

ILYSE HOGUE: Or does away with it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right, right.

ILYSE HOGUE: And even though we have seen that people entering the clinic can hear the protesters, can stop and talk with them, can see them very clearly, that sends a very terrifying message.

There was a reason this buffer zone was put in place. It was because law enforcement was managing a lot of disruption.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I know you said, Steve Aden, what happened, the violence that happened was a long time ago, but it did happen. And these — the barrier was set up in response to that.

STEVEN ADEN: Well, let’s be realistic.

A yellow line on a sidewalk is not going to stop a determined violent individual. That’s absurd. What they’re trying to stop is the speech of Eleanor McCullen, which they hate, because it cuts into Planned Parenthood’s profits.

The things that she’s describing go on more often from the other side of the fence. In fact, when the assistant attorney for Massachusetts and the U.S. solicitor — the assistant solicitor for the United States were asked to cite examples of disruption in front of abortion clinics, the only disruption they talked about was disruption from pro-choice protesters who were doing those kinds of things. That’s very telling.

ILYSE HOGUE: I have to — I have to jump in. The violence is not in the past. There were four cases of clinics being burned in 2012.

While — what we need to appreciate is that there is an intentional effort to make these grandmothers the face of a movement that has a deep history of harassment and intimidation of women who are also doing nothing but exercising our constitutional rights to safe health care.

STEVEN ADEN: Judy, let me explain very briefly.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Go ahead, and then I want to go back — come back to both of you. But go ahead.

STEVEN ADEN: Ilyse, NARAL and others often say that — often accuse the pro-life movement of not caring about women.

Today, there are four times more caring pregnancy resource centers in America as there are abortion clinics. Based on that, you tell me, who cares more about women?


STEVEN ADEN: And that’s where the movement is going.


JUDY WOODRUFF: I will let you respond to that, but then I do want to come back to the Supreme Court case.

STEVEN ADEN: That’s where the…


ILYSE HOGUE: No, this is a concerted effort of the anti-choice movement to defund and do away with clinics, because their ultimate goal is to outlaw abortion.

And the clinics, the centers that Steve is talking about actually has a documented record of lying to women and shaming them about their options.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I don’t think we’re going to…

STEVEN ADEN: That’s not so.


JUDY WOODRUFF: I know you’re saying…


STEVEN ADEN: … all the options, unlike what they will hear at Planned Parenthood.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Steve Aden, let me come back to you on, is there any any — any buffer at any distance, closer than this 35 feet, that would be acceptable to your organization?

STEVEN ADEN: Not on a public sidewalk, Judy.

It is completely unnecessary and it’s absurd. In the case of this law, the lawyers for Massachusetts admitted in the court of appeals that it would stop somebody from wearing a Cleveland Indians baseball cap and walking through the speech exclusion zone. That would be a crime, because it would be — quote, unquote — “partisan activity” in a no-speech zone.

Who needs a law like that? That is ridiculous.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Same question turned around to you, Ilyse Hogue.

Is it — would it be acceptable to have a buffer that wasn’t 35 feet, that was a different distance?

ILYSE HOGUE: The Colorado buffer is eight feet. But I think it’s — that’s left to law enforcement to determine what they need to assure public safety. And that is what has been done in Massachusetts. That is what the First District Court upheld, and that is what we think is best.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Just finally, let me ask you both, if the court goes along with this case and rules to do away with the buffer, what does that mean for the cause of pro-choice?

ILYSE HOGUE: Well, I mean, I think that what we know is that women will make up their own minds and do everything they can to access the health care that they need.

But it will send a chilling signal of tolerance to the kind of harassment and intimidation that is really not acceptable for women in this country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, conversely, Steve Aden, if the court goes in the other direction and says the buffer stands, what does that mean for your — for the anti-abortion movement?

STEVEN ADEN: Well, that would be very regrettable, because that would be a nail in the coffin of the First Amendment.

From time immemorial, the public streets, the sidewalks, the parks have been held open for what the Supreme Court has called open, robust and uninhibited debate on important public issues like abortion. If now they — the state can carve out a zone of exclusion for speech that it disfavors, it can do this not only to pro-lifers, but to any movement. It can do that not labor movement, of which Ilyse is so fond.

It could do it to any — the law that benefits Planned Parenthood in Boston could harm Planned Parenthood in Tennessee or any other red state, where they would — and I don’t know how comfortable you are with that, but that’s…

ILYSE HOGUE: And we do, do that already all the time.

As Marcia mentioned, there’s buffers around military funerals, even at both Republican and Democratic National Convention, there were protests.

STEVEN ADEN: Very, very different circumstances.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we’re going to have to leave it there.

Steve Aden, Ilyse Hogue, we thank you both.

ILYSE HOGUE: Thank you.

STEVEN ADEN: A pleasure.