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Abortion clinic buffer zone ruling could affect Burlington - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

Abortion clinic buffer zone ruling could affect Burlington

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BURLINGTON, Vt. -

The battle between free speech and access to health care rages on. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling Thursday is threatening a Burlington city ordinance not even 2 years old. In 2012, the Burlington City Council passed a bill establishing 35-foot safety zones around reproductive clinics. The high court's ruling states that the 35-foot zone is too far.

Agnes Clift is one of a group of protesters that regularly demonstrate outside Planned Parenthood in Burlington. She says Thursday's decision is a win for their free speech rights.

"The only way we could communicate with people was by raising our voices and yelling, 'We don't wanna do that,'" Clift said.

Clift said she went to Washington to hear the verbal arguments of the U.S. Supreme Court case, where representatives from Planned Parenthood said their patients and employees were being harassed before the Massachusetts buffer zone was enacted.

"They were being followed into the entrance way of the health center, being given misinformation about health care, and they really felt like they were being intimidated and harassed," said Jill Krowinski of Planned Parenthood.

The Supreme Court ruling Thursday struck down an ordinance in Massachusetts that was similar to the one in Burlington.

The city is now reviewing the ruling to find out what works for the Queen City. In a statement, city attorney Eileen Blackwood 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."

Agnes Clift would not call her demonstrations a protest.

"I wouldn't call it protesting. We were basically praying and offering people literature," she said.

Meanwhile, Krowinski says Planned Parenthood's main goal is to keep their patients safe.

"The Supreme Court's ruling [Thursday] to strike down the buffer zone law is really a complete disregard for the health and safety of patients and staff," Krowinski said.

There is also a law in New Hampshire similar to the ones here in Vermont and in Massachusetts. A federal judge ruled earlier this year that Vermont's law was constitutional, but the Supreme Court's decision will overrule that. The Supreme Court did not say that buffer zones were illegal, but rather it said that a 35-foot zone is just too far.

Legal Analyst Cheryl Hanna of the Vermont Law School says she would not be surprised to see anti-abortion demonstrators step in to challenge Burlington's ordinance.

"The court said that Massachusetts certainly had legitimate interest in maintaining public safety on streets and sidewalks and preserving access to reproductive health facilities. So to be very clear, the court never struck down the availability of buffer zones to cities and states. However, they said at the same time the Massachusetts law really imposed a very serious burden on those people who wanted to speak because they weren't able to have close personal conversations with patients and to distribute literature to them. And the court went on to say that those forms of expression have been closely associated with the First Amendment and the idea that people have the right to engage in political speech. The court then left open the opportunity for Massachusetts to go back and amend its statute to really capture the problems-- the problem of interference, the problem of obstructionism," Hanna said. "But what the court said is that those people who are there to discourage women from having abortions have the right to have personal conversations with those women and there was no way to do that under the buffer zone law currently."

And Hanna noted that the justices ruled unanimously and carefully avoided getting into a debate over abortion. Instead they focused on the speech rights aspects of the case.

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