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  • Supreme Court Report

  •   Protesters and Their Targets

    Thursday, October 17, 1996; Page A22

    An axiom in the law is that "your right to swing your fist stops at the tip of my nose." You have the freedom, that is, to act as you please so long as your action does not interfere with my right to personal security. This week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case in which somewhat different competing rights come into conflict. Abortion opponents seek to expand their clinic protests in Buffalo and Rochester, while an abortion-rights group wants the court to uphold an injunction limiting those demonstrations.

    First Amendment protections are of paramount importance, particularly when matters of public policy are at stake. Abortion opponents, especially those demonstrating in a nonviolent way, must be allowed to picket, to persuade, to carry placards and to express their views publicly even if these activities annoy people on the receiving end.

    But there are certain limitations that can be placed on speech rights so long as they are not based on the content of that speech. Parades at midnight can be banned. The use of bullhorns in residential neighborhoods can be limited to daylight hours. And demonstrations that infringe on the constitutionally protected rights of other citizens or threaten their personal health and safety can be restricted, the Supreme Court ruled two years ago, so long as they "burden no more speech than necessary to serve a significant government interest."

    The limitation at issue in the current case requires protesters to remain at least 15 feet away from clinic entrances and a similar distance from patients and staff entering it. Abortion opponents may enter the latter protected zone two at a time to talk to patients and hand them literature. But they must move back as soon as the patient indicates she wishes them to do so.

    Abortion opponents claim that the injunction is an unconstitutional restriction on their rights of free speech, because they are acting peacefully on public property. We believe it is a minimal regulation, carefully crafted to keep the peace and allow both sides to exercise rights.

    It is puzzling that the Supreme Court even agreed to hear this case, since the challenged ruling follows existing precedent. There was, however, a concurring opinion signed by 10 of the 15 appellate judges who heard this case below; it suggests that coercive or obstructionist conduct in the form of speech not only can be limited but is not protected by the First Amendment at all. Perhaps the high court seeks to address this opinion. If so, its decision will have a great impact far beyond the current dispute about abortion rights.

    © Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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