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Buffer Zones for Hypocrite Justices
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If only the women at abortion clinics could get the same deal that the high court justices have arranged for themselves.
As you know, all nine members decreed last week that Massachusetts was wrong to carve out a 35-foot buffer zone to protect women from the abuse routinely heaped upon them by anti-abortion protestors. In the court’s view, the zone violated protestors’ free speech rights. The court said that buffer zones typically “burden more speech than necessary” and deprive protestors “of their two primary methods of communicating with arriving patients: close, personal conversations and distribution of literature.”
We can spend all day debating whether 35 feet is such a huge chasm (in baseball, that’s roughly one-third the distance from home plate to first base), and whether the court has a clue about what happens outside abortion clinics (“close, personal conversations” is a charitable description), but I’m more interested in this particular fact:
The justices have a buffer zone that extends 252 feet.
So presumably you see the disconnect. Women seeking abortions should be forced to run the gauntlet of insults, because insults are constitutionally protected - but high court justices have rules that protect them from hearing nary a word of protest. Nobody is allowed to raise hell on the broad plaza fronting the Supreme Court building (protestors are confined to the frontal sidewalk), and the berobed brethren don’t use the front door anyway.
The justices said last week, via John Roberts’ opinion, that women seeking abortions need to be exposed to “the transmission of ideas.” But the justices exempt themselves from the same kind of exposure; apparently, free speech is a less vital principle when their own interests are involved.
The court’s rules state: “No personal shall engage in a demonstration within the Supreme Court building and grounds.” The barred behavior includes “picketing, speechmaking, marching, holding vigils or religious services, and all other form of conduct that involve communication or expression of views or grievances, engaged in by one or more persons, the conduct of which is reasonably likely to draw a crowd of onlookers.”
I guess the justices don’t want to be exposed to the disputatious “transmission of ideas.” That’s fine for the common folk - especially vulnerable women - but not for them.
Several years ago, one protestor did try to get a wee bit closer to the justices by standing on the plaza. Harold Hodge, a Maryland college kid, was promptly arrested. He sued, insisting that the plaza buffer zone violated his free speech rights - and last year, in federal district court, he won. The judge ruled that “the absolute prohibition of expressive activity (on the plaza) is unreasonable, substantially overbroad, and irreconcilable with the First Amendment.” The high court could’ve surrendered to that ruling by erasing or shrinking its buffer zone, but no. The ruling is being appealed.
If robust free speech is really such a bedrock issue, perhaps the justices should allow some of that speech to penetrate their bubble. Perhaps, as an experiment, they should spend a week (with sufficient security) running the gauntlet of insults, walking into their building in close proximity to the public, and probably hearing stuff like this:
“Hey jerks, thanks a lot for Citizens United, opening up politics to the fat cats!”
“How come you clowns exempt yourselves from the conflict-of-interest rules that apply to all other federal judges?”
“Hey Scalia, you still freaking out about the ‘homosexual agenda’?”
“Screwing with the Voting Rights Act - where do you guys get off saying that racism is over? Don’t you get out much?”
“Are you people aware that the public’s confidence in your court has hit an all-time low in the Gallup poll?”
“Hey Clarence Thomas - did someone surgically remove your voice box? Or it is in Scalia’s pocket?”
That’s what free speech can sound like, up close and in your face. I urge the justices to spend a week without their buffer zone. Only then would they conceivably come to understand what women at abortion clinics are forced to endure on a daily basis.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia ( and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Philadelphia. Email him at