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Supreme Court upholds abortion protest limits
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Supreme Court upheld a state law Wednesday requiring anti-abortion demonstrators to stay at least 8 feet away from anyone entering or leaving medical facilities.
The justices, by a 6-3 vote, declared that the Colorado law designed to protect the privacy rights of patients and staff members at the clinics did not violate the constitutional free-speech rights of the protesters.
Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the court in Hill v. Colorado that the law's restrictions on speech-related conduct were constitutional, and states have a special justification to avoid potential confrontations causing trauma to patients at health care facilities.
The 1993 Colorado law specifies that no one may, without permission, get within 8 feet of another person within a 100-foot radius of a health-care facility. The law places that 8-foot buffer for those who want to engage in a variety of activities such as distributing a handbill or a leaflet, or to argue, educate or counsel.
The law seeks to balance a person's right to protest with that of another's right to obtain or provide medical services, including abortion. It makes it a crime for anyone to "knowingly obstruct" another person's entry or exit from a health-care facility.
Soon after the Colorado Legislature passed the statute, "sidewalk counselors" -- anti-abortion activists -- sued, challenging the constitutionality of the "knowingly obstruct" clause under the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendments. The "counselors" attempt to change the minds of women seeking abortions, and they distribute literature and hold up signs.
The state trial court and a state appeals court ruled for the state, and the Colorado Supreme Court refused to hear the case, at which point the protesters appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In February 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court returned the case to the state courts to further consider the matter, but the Colorado appellate court reached the same conclusion -- that there was nothing wrong with the law. The Colorado Supreme Court did consider the case the second time around, and ruled in the state's favor.
It is the Colorado Supreme Court ruling that the nation's highest court reviewed.
Third sidewalk restrictions case
Hill v. Colorado marked the third time the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed a case involving sidewalk activities of abortion foes, according to an analysis for the American Bar Association by Thomas E. Baker, a constitutional law scholar at the Drake University Law School in Des Moines, Iowa.
In 1994, the court approved a few provisions of a Florida state court order but rejected some others in Madsen v. Women's Health Center, Inc. The court upheld noise restrictions and permitted a 36-foot buffer zone around the entrances to clinics. But the justices gave the thumbs down to a 300-foot buffer zone around the residences of a clinic's staff members.
Three years later, the high court affirmed some provisions and struck down some others in a federal trial judge's order in a New York case, Schenck v. Pro-Choice Network. The court essentially affirmed the judgment in the Madsen case.
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