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Buffer Zone Ruling Could Affect Burlington and New Hampshire Laws

For the past two years, a 35-foot buffer zone has blocked people from gathering, picketing and demonstrating outside the Planned Parenthood health center in Burlington.
BURLINGTON - For the past two years, a 35-foot buffer zone has blocked people from gathering, picketing and demonstrating outside the Planned Parenthood health center in Burlington.

Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a similar law in Massachusetts.

"The Supreme Court Justices' decision to strike down the buffer zone law I think shows a disregard for patients and staff entering reproductive health care facilities," said Jill Krowinski, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. She also represents Burlington in the State Legislature.

Vermont Law School Professor Cheryl Hanna says the ruling could apply to Burlington, or any other state or city with a buffer zone law. New Hampshire recently passed a statewide, 25-foot buffer zone law.

"While it didn't overrule the ability of states or cities to have buffer zones in from of abortion clinics, what it did say is that it has to be very narrowly tailored to make sure they did not restrict free speech," Hanna said.

For example, the court ruled that the Massachusetts law was too restrictive because it blocked protestors from a public sidewalk.

"Which historically have been available for free speech and for political dissent," Hanna said. The Burlington Planned Parenthood is also on a public sidewalk.

Agnes Clift usually protests outside Burlington's buffer zone. She wasn't there Thursday because she was at a right-to-life conference in Kentucky. That's where she heard the news of the Supreme Court ruling.

"Pretty excited and happy," Clift said over the phone. She is part of a group that is challenging Burlington's buffer zone ordinance in court. Now, she thinks they'll win.

"We're not going to be in people's faces," Clift said, explaining what her group will do if and when they are allowed to protest closer to the clinic's entrance. "We're going to be off to the side in the green space." She also said she hands out brochures, but if people refuse she does not harass them.

But Jill Krowinski is worried. She says there was a reason the buffer zone took effect in the first place.

"There was absolutely issues," she said. "We received many complaints from patients and staff of being harassed and intimidated."

Burlington's City Attorney Eileen Blackwood issued a statement, saying in part: "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 to determine the impact on our ordinance."

She said the process would take a few days.

In New York, Attorney General Eric Schneiderman also issued a statement, saying the ruling will not affect any New York laws, but he is disappointed in the Supreme Court's decision.

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