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January 13, 2014

Abortion clinic protest-free zone

BOSTON — Eleanor McCullen clutches a baby’s hat knit in pink and blue as she patrols a yellow semicircle painted on the sidewalk outside a Planned Parenthood health clinic on a frigid December morning with snow in the forecast.

The painted line marks 35 feet from the clinic’s entrance and that’s where the 77-year-old McCullen and all other abortion protesters and supporters must stay under a Massachusetts law that is being challenged at the U.S. Supreme Court as an unconstitutional infringement on free speech. Arguments are set for Wednesday.

Outside the line, McCullen and others are free to approach anyone with any message they wish. They risk arrest closer to the door.

With her pleasant demeanor and grandmotherly mien, McCullen has become the new face of a decades-old fight between abortion opponents asserting their right to try to change the minds of women seeking abortions and abortion providers claiming that patients should be able to enter their facilities without being impeded or harassed.

In 2000, the Supreme Court upheld a different buffer zone in Colorado in a decision that some free speech advocates, who also support abortion rights, heavily criticized. Noted First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams called the decision in Hill v. Colorado “what may well be the most indefensible First Amendment ruling so far this century.”

The three dissenters in that case — Justices Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas — remain on the court. They have been joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, who may be willing to provide the two additional votes in support of the protesters.

McCullen and other abortion opponents sued over the limits on their activities at Planned Parenthood health centers in Boston, Springfield and Worcester. At the latter two sites, the protesters say they have little chance of reaching patients arriving by car because they must stay 35 feet from the entrance to those buildings’ parking lots.

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