Does Free Speech Mean That Women Are Obliged To Endure Harassment?

That is the fundamental question behind a case that the Supreme Court will be hearing about "buffer zones" in front of reproductive health clinics.

The state’s attorney general, Martha Coakley, who is the lead defendant in the suit, said the 35-foot buffer zone created by the 2007 law was a necessary response to an ugly history of harassment and violence at abortion clinics in Massachusetts, including a shooting rampage at two facilities in 1994.

“This law is access balanced with speech balanced with public safety,” Ms. Coakley said. “It has worked extremely well.”

She added that there was every reason to think the law was constitutional in light of a 2000 decision from the Supreme Court upholding a similar Colorado law. “Nothing has changed except the court,” Ms. Coakley said.

The plantiffs in the lawsuit are arguing that their free speech rights entitle them to get in someone's face and harass them. There's a lot of tap-dancing around the issue, both in terms of minimizing what anti-choice harassers do at clinics and by trying to equate consensual interactions with non-consensual interactions. They're doing this first by putting a couple of elderly women at the front of the case and hoping to exploit sexist, patronizing stereotypes about how old women are "harmless" to sell the case. They're also trying to make it seem like an abortion clinic is simply a platform to "debate" the issue between various sides, instead of a medical center where some people are there to help the patients and some people are there to hurt them.

The law bars everyone from entering or staying in fixed buffer zones around entrances to reproductive health care facilities. There are exceptions for people going into or coming out of the building, people using the sidewalk to get somewhere else, law enforcement officials and the like, and clinic employees.

That last exemption, for clinic employees, tilts the scales in favor of their point of view, said Mark L. Rienzi, a lawyer for Ms. McCullen and other protesters.

“The government does not have the ability to decide,” he said, “that its public sidewalks are open for speakers on one side but not speakers on the other side.”

Except that the front of the clinic is not a debate platform where everyone gets to stand up and make their arguments about abortion for an audience to decide. It's a clinic. Both sides are not the same and not equal. For one thing, clinic workers aren't "speakers" for any side. They're not trying to persuade women. On the contrary, the evidence actually shows that abortion clinic workers by and large are not invested in the final outcome of a woman's decision and are only there to help a woman get the ends she has determined for herself are the best. If a woman comes in and, after talking to the doctor and getting an ultrasound, decides to change her mind (exceedingly rare, by the way), then that's fine. Anti-choicers would love to pretend that women coming into clinics are just confused and that there's "two sides"---one pushing for abortion and one pushing against---that need to be heard out. That's simply put, a lie. The "two sides" are people who are there to help women make the best decisions for themselves and people who are there because they wish to harass women whose personal medical decisions they disagree with. If a bunch of people felt entitled to, say, get up in men's faces and scream at them as they entered a heart clinic in order to get their cholesterol measured, this would not be even remotely confusing.

This lawsuit really shows how much the anti-choice movement is based on the assumption that women do not own our own bodies. Not only do they deny that women have a right to control what happens in our uterus, but these harassers clearly believe that women also are obliged to give audience to any random fundamentalist who wants to yell anti-woman invective directly into your face. The buffer zone is not very big---"the last seven seconds of a patient’s or a staff member’s walk to the door," explains Martha Walz, the president of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachussetts---but such is the overwhelming belief that women's bodies and minds belong to them that anti-choicers think that you aren't even allowed seven seconds of refusing to listen to their harassment. If women want to engage with anti-choice protesters, then there's nothing stopping them from stopping and talking before the buffer zone. This is about non-consenting audiences. This is about a woman's right to say no to a harasser. And if there's one thing anti-choicers do not like, it's letting women have the choice to say no: No to a pregnancy, no to their sex-phobic misogyny, no to listening to their bullshit. Hopefully, the court will rule correctly and say that free speech does not entitle you to an audience.