Anti-Choice Activist Eleanor McCullen Claims Harassment is a First Amendment Right

An upcoming Supreme Court case is pitting reproductive rights against free speech, sort of. Anti-choice activist Eleanor McCullen claims her First Amendment rights are being violated by a Massachusetts law prohibiting abortion protesters from coming within 35 feet of an abortion clinic. McCullen is a regular outside of a Boston Planned Parenthood clinic, where she holds signs, hands out leaflets, and tries to persuade women on their way in not to go through with abortion procedures. But owing to a state law passed in 2007, McCullen can't come within 35 feet of the clinic's entrance without committing a crime.

The buffer zone is marked with a painted yellow semi-circle. Note that this is really a pretty small area we're talking about — not even the whole width of the Planned Parenthood building. Protesters just can't follow entrants right up to the door, a move the state says was necessary to prevent harassment, intimidation, and violence outside clinics. "This law is access balanced with speech balanced with public safety,” Mass. Attorney General Martha Coakley told the New York Times. “It has worked extremely well.”

But McCullen says the line is intimidating her, not to mention violating her First Amendment rights. In a sworn statement filed in the case, McCullen notes that she is a short, "plump," 77-year-old grandmother who poses no threat to anyone. But that's the thing about laws — they're widely applicable, not circumstantial. Even if she doesn't pose a physical threat to clinic patients, other folks following the same law might. Besides which, harassment has no age or height requirements.

The suit goes before the U.S. Supreme Court this Wednesday. Happily, it's not expected to go McCullen's way. The Supreme Court upheld a similar buffer-zone law from Colorado in 2000 — but that decision has been harshly criticized, according to the Times. And the swapping of Justices William H. Rehnquist and Sandra Day O’Connor for John G. Roberts Jr. and Samuel A. Alito Jr. could possibly tilt the balance in protesters' favor this time.

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