The Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a law that prevented protesters from coming within 35 feet of abortion clinics in Massachusetts, a unanimous, 9-0 decision ruling it a violation of the First Amendment.
However, there was a glaring irony in the decision for both detractors and supporters. The Supreme Court has its own “buffer zone” — a federal law bans protesters from congregating on the white marble plaza of the high court’s building.
“By striking down the buffer zone law today, the Supreme Court has taken away an essential measure to protect public safety and health care access in our state,” Marty Walz, the CEO of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts and an opponent of the court’s decision, told Business Insider in a statement.
“Of note, the Justices who voted to strike down the Massachusetts law today are protected by their own buffer zone. They made no mention of that buffer zone, and the opinion raises the question of whether the buffer zone at the Supreme Court is in fact constitutional.”
As it so happens, a challenge to the Supreme Court’s own buffer zone could come before the high court soon. Jeffrey Light, a Washington-based attorney, is set to argue the Supreme Court’s buffer zone is unconstitutional in front of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in September. The next step would be the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court’s rule was challenged by
Harold Hodge Jr., a student from Maryland who was arrested in 2011 while mounting a protest to criticise police treatment of blacks and hispanics. The court has said the rule could not apply to public sidewalks outside the court but could apply to the plaza, a key distinction between the Massachusetts and Supreme Court legal disputes.
“To the extent that the Supreme Court’s plaza is analogous to a sidewalk, it is hypocritical to ban First Amendment activity there while striking down a ban on First Amendment activity on the sidewalk in front of a clinic. First Amendment activity should be permitted in both places,” Light told Business Insider in an interview.
Thus far, lower courts have sided with Hodge. A trial court agreed with Hodge’s lawyers’ argument, prompting the Supreme Court to issue a new rule one year ago requiring pedestrians to “maintain suitable order and decorum within the Supreme Court building and grounds.”
Light believes protesters should be allowed to peaceably assemble at both places. He said the high court has gone too far to control speech on its grounds — even members of the public wearing T-shirts that could be interpreted to contain a political message, he said, could be arrested.
“I think their plaza is like those sidewalks,” Light said.
A spokesperson for the Supreme Court did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
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