York City officials got something Thursday they'd been waiting on for months — a ruling on the constitutionality of a 2007 law that set up 35-foot protest-free zones outside Massachusetts abortion clinics.
The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down the zones, ruling unanimously that extending a buffer zone that far from clinic entrances violates the First Amendment rights of protesters.
Chief Justice John Roberts said authorities have less intrusive ways to deal with problems outside clinics and noted that most of the problems reported by police and the clinics occurred outside one Planned Parenthood facility in Boston, and only on Saturdays when the largest crowds typically gather.
"For a problem shown to arise only once a week in one city at one clinic, creating 35-foot buffer zones at every clinic across the Commonwealth is hardly a narrowly tailored solution," Roberts said.
Last year, at the request of Planned Parenthood representatives, the York City Council drafted legislation that would ban protesters from a 30-foot "buffer zone" around the entrances and exits of York City healthcare facilities. Some Planned Parenthood facilities, including York's center at 728 S. Beaver St., provide abortion services in addition to cancer screenings, birth control, prevention and treatment of STDs, breast health services, pap tests, sexual health education, information and health counseling.
Disappointing: On the advice of the city solicitor, the council decided in January to table the proposal until the Supreme Court ruled on the Massachusetts law.
In an email Thursday, York City solicitor Jason Sabol said he wants to review the 52-page opinion before drawing any conclusions about its potential meaning for York.
"We are disappointed in the ruling, and we pretty much just have to take a closer look at it to see how it affects the laws in Pennsylvania," said Selina Winchester, a Planned Parenthood spokeswoman.
Kim Custer, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Keystone, said in a statement the organization is "extremely disappointed that the Supreme Court has failed to uphold this essential public safety measure."
"Planned Parenthood Keystone has seen firsthand how obstruction, harassment and intimidation outside reproductive health centers can threaten public safety and interfere with women's access to care," Custer said in the statement. "Although we are disappointed in this ruling, Planned Parenthood Keystone patients and staff can count on us to ensure that their safety and wellbeing is protected."
The court: While the court was unanimous in the overall outcome, Roberts joined with the four liberal justices to strike down the buffer zone on narrower grounds than the other more conservative justices wanted. In a separate opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia criticized Roberts' opinion for carrying forward "this court's practice of giving abortion-rights advocates a pass when it comes to suppressing the free-speech rights of their opponents."
Scalia said state and local governments around the country would continue to be able to "restrict anti-abortion speech without fear of rigorous constitutional review."
Still, abortion rights advocates lamented the decision and said it compromised the safety of women seeking abortions.
"This decision shows a troubling level of disregard for American women, who should be able to make carefully considered, private medical decisions without running a gantlet of harassing and threatening protesters," said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Mark Rienzi, who represented the protesters at the Supreme Court, said, "The government cannot reserve its public sidewalks for Planned Parenthood, as if their message is the only one women should be allowed to hear. Today's decision confirms that the First Amendment is for everyone, and that the government cannot silence peaceful speakers."
— Reach Erin James at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Associated Press contributed to this report.