Photo courtesy of MCT Campus.

Photo courtesy of MCT Campus.

AAJA Coverage: Abortion Clinic Law Reignites Free Speech Debate

Published on Aug. 2, 2014 online

Applicable Categories: writingnews gatheringnews literacy

The summer before my senior year, I attended four journalism camps. During the Asian American Journalist Association's JCamp in Boston, I produced a news article topical to Boston readers. Over the course of one week, I secured interviews with local pro-life leaders, the national leader of Planned Parenthood and the Massachusetts Attorney General to supplement my story.

Massachusetts further thrust itself into a free speech debate over abortion this week when Governor Deval Patrick signed a law allowing police to forcibly remove anyone engaging in “harassment and intimidation” outside abortion clinics.

The Bay State enacted the law less than a month after the Supreme Court struck down buffer zones at abortion clinics aimed at protecting women from protesters.

The law signing was met with fury from pro-life advocates such as the Massachusetts Citizens for Life, who claim that their protests are peaceful and aimed at education.

However, pro-choice advocates hailed the law.

“A woman should be able to make private medical decisions without someone judging her, harassing or intimidating her, ” said Martha Walz, the chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts.

During a telephone press conference with reporters, Planned Parenthood’s national President Cecile Richards said the law is “narrowly tailored” to decrease intimidation and harassment aimed at women entering abortion clinics.

It allows police to push protesters back 25 feet from the clinic if they are intimidating or threatening patrons, or using actual force. Police can disperse crowds if they are blocking parking lots, sidewalks or doorways leading to the clinic.

The law also allows the state to punish protesters who break the law by forcing them to pay for damages, cover litigation fees and serve civil penalties such as jail time.

In the eyes of Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, who is running for governor, the punitive measures “add teeth” to the law and is an important part of protecting women.

“This law will not only protect access, but also stand up to Constitutional challenge,” Coakley said in the press conference. “We are proud to take another step to protect women’s rights.”

From the moment it was proposed on July 14, the new law reignited a debate between abortion foes and abortion rights advocates over freedom of speech.

Pro-life supporters such as Anne Fox of the MCFL view the bill as a direct attack to their First Amendment rights. Fox’s major concern is that the law allows police to make judgement calls about what is appropriate to say and do while protesting.

“I think it’s scary,” Fox said. “The law is very vague. It just escalates the situation.”

Another concern for Fox is the increase in police attention and intervention that this law will require. Police presence at anti-abortion demonstrations, she said, could discourage peaceful pro-lifers from attending protests.

But Walz and other pro-choice advocates believe that police intervention is necessary to maintain order. Walz saw the immediate impact of the Supreme Court ruling at her office in the downtown Boston Planned Parenthood. After the ruling, pro-life groups began to assemble in protest outside the office every morning.

Fox said that pro-life supporters will continue their downtown protests like normal, attempting to pass on a message of “hope, health and love” as they wait for police action.

“It’s the law now, but it just can’t stand up,” Fox said. “Still, we’re going to wait it out and see how it goes. It all depends on how the police take action. I’m scared about it. Right now, the future is just very unclear for us.”