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Supreme Court upholds protesters' presence at abortion clinics


WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Supreme Court handed a victory to anti-abortion activists Thursday by making it harder for states to enact laws aimed at helping patients entering abortion clinics to avoid protesters.

In a 9-0 vote, the court said a 2007 Massachusetts law violated freedom of speech rights under the First Amendment by preventing anti-abortion activists from standing on the sidewalk and speaking to people entering the clinics. The law allowed only patients, staff, passersby and emergency services to enter the 35-foot zone.

The ruling casts into doubt similar fixed buffer zones adopted by several municipalities, including San Francisco and Pittsburgh.

The court did not specify under what circumstances other restrictions aimed at keeping public order outside clinics would be deemed lawful.

The court sent a signal that some laws might be acceptable by declining to overturn its ruling in a 2000 case that upheld a less restrictive law in Colorado. That law prevents people outside clinics from approaching within 8 feet of another person without their consent. Montana has a similar law.

The Massachusetts law was enacted in part because of safety concerns highlighted by violent acts committed against abortion providers in the past. In 1994, two abortion clinic workers were killed outside a clinic in Brookline.

The protesters say their main aim is to counsel women to try to deter them from having abortions. Eleanor McCullen, the lead plaintiff in the case, said the court's decision allows her to "offer loving help to a woman who wants it" without the threat of jail.

Boston officials said they will boost police presence around abortion clinics this morning.

Planned Parenthood said it plans steps to ensure public safety at its clinics. Marty Walz, executive director of Planned Parenthood in Massachusetts, said the group will train new "escorts" to get patients through picket lines at clinics.

The case specifically concerned people who wanted to protest outside three Planned Parenthood facilities that offer abortions in addition to other health services for women in Boston, Springfield and Worcester.

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