The Right to Protest vs. the Right to Peace

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If antiabortion protesters stand eight feet away from the entrance of a Colorado women's health clinic and yell lustily, does anyone hear them? Probably, but according to the plaintiffs in a case scheduled to go before the Supreme Court Wednesday, the eight-foot "bubble" required between Colorado protesters and clinic patients nevertheless infringes on the protesters' First Amendment rights. The constitutionality of buffer zones, which serve as barriers between clinic patients and possibly intimidating protesters, remains a point of heated contention between abortion-rights activists and antiabortion forces. "This is one of the major practical issues in the abortion debate," says TIME legal reporter Alain Sanders. "There is a constitutional right to abortion and a constitutional right to voice an opinion about abortion. The key is finding a balance."

But this is proving a difficult balance to strike, even for the highest court in the land. Protesters claim that creating a buffer zone only serves to escalate the tone of demonstrations; keeping patients at a distance, they say, ensures they will have to scream to be heard. With this in mind, the Court ruled in 1997 that protesters could "counsel" patients on the sidewalk outside New York State clinics, as long as they did not come within 15 feet of the facilities' entrances. Adding to the Justices' difficulties is the current Court's disparate interests. "This Court has been a very strong advocate of free speech, and has also upheld the right to abortion," says Sanders. The Justices will have to decide what sort of distance, if any, protects the differing rights of patients, doctors and protesters. And, as they all know, you can't please everyone all the time; the decision, due out by summer, could herald new lawsuits and reignite simmering tensions at clinics nationwide. One thing's for sure: Both the pro-choice and pro-life lobbies will be looking for the Supreme Court to somehow rationalize the myriad state and local laws that at present govern protester conduct outside abortion clinics.