Burlington's buffer zone law — which prevents protesters from coming within 35 feet of reproductive health centers — is in jeopardy after the Supreme Court unanimously struck down a similar law in Massachusetts on Thursday.
Burlington's ordinance, implemented in 2012, has withstood a legal challenge, but that federal court decision is currently under appeal. Both the Burlington and the Massachusetts laws carved out 35- foot buffer zones.
Michael DePrimo, a Connecticut-based lawyer representing the plaintiffs in the Burlington case, was also lead counsel in the McCullen v. Coakley case up until it reached the Supreme Court. Reached Thursday, he said the city would be foolish to continue to defend the ordinance. "If they want to continue fighting, then they are wasting the taxpayer money."
DePrimo expressed confidence that Thursday's ruling spells the end for Burlington's ordinance. "The Supreme Court declared the Massachusetts statute unconstitutional. The Burlington ordinance was patterned on the Massachusetts statute," DePrimo said. "The McCullen case applies directly to the Burlington ordinance, and in my view the Burlington ordinance now cannot stand. It is unconstitutional."
According to the New York Times, although the decision that the law violated First Amendment rights was unanimous, the Justices were split on the rationale.
Burlington's city attorney, Eileen Blackwood, hedged her predictions. In a written statement, she said, “The Burlington buffer zone ordinance has both similarities with and differences from the Massachusetts law. We are in the process of reviewing and analyzing the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Massachusetts case to determine the impact on our ordinance and will share the results of our analysis in the next few days.”
Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, which runs a clinic on St. Paul Street, criticized the decision in a statement. "The Supreme Court Justices’ decision today to strike down the buffer zone law shows a disregard for the safety of patients and staff entering reproductive health centers and we are disappointed by their decision to strike down the Massachusetts law."
The statement continues, "We still experience regular protesters at our health center and they are still able to get their message out. What is different since the buffer zone has been enacted is that our patients have not been as intimated [sic] and report feeling safer and more comfortable entering our health center. The atmosphere outside of our health center is one of peaceful coexistence – which balances the right to privacy with free speech rights."
Amy Cochran, 61, who opposes abortion, approaches people outside Burlington's Planned Parenthood clinic. "All I want to do is persuade women that there are alternatives to abortion, and to do it gently," Cochran said. The buffer zone has impeded that effort, she said. "To be 35 feet away is pretty far. The way to approach someone when they are distraught is not to say, 'Hey look this way,' while holding a sign. That is pretty threatening."