Activists sue to block New Hampshire abortion ‘buffer zone’ law

Pro-life counselors act after June Supreme Court victory

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In the wake of a major Supreme Court decision, seven pro-life “sidewalk counselors” are suing to overturn New Hampshire’s new buffer law for abortion clinics, arguing the statute violates their right to free speech.

The lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in New Hampshire, asks that the law — which is set to go into effect Thursday — be enjoined while the case is pursued.


SEE ALSO: Abortion clinic buffer zone ruling creates temporary reprieve, push for new laws


“Americans have the freedom to talk to whomever they please on public sidewalks,” said Matt Bowman, senior legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing six women and one man in the lawsuit.

New Hampshire Attorney General Joseph Foster, a Democrat, said Tuesday afternoon the state would file a response later in the day. New Hampshire’s law is not the same as Massachusetts’ law, which was struck down in June by the Supreme Court, he said. “We do believe our law is constitutional.”

On June 10, Democratic New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan signed the “patient safety” law, which permits abortion clinics and law enforcement to create tailored buffer zones, up to 25 feet in size, around clinics throughout the state.

The law forbids people from engaging in advocacy or protest, or even standing in silence inside a buffer zone. People exempted from the law include those with business at a clinic, emergency and law enforcement personnel, and clinic escorts.

On June 26, the Supreme Court struck down a similar 35-foot buffer law in Massachusetts, saying the way the law was structured violated the free speech rights of abortion opponents.

“New Hampshire’s law suffers from the same constitutional problems as the one the Supreme Court struck down,” Mr. Bowman said, referring to the unanimous ruling in McCullen v. Coakley.

Sister Mary Rose Reddy and the other plaintiffs say the “anti-speech zones” should be struck down so they can continue to regularly engage in “peaceful prayer,” leafleting, sidewalk counseling and other “peaceful expressive activities” on public sidewalks and streets outside abortion clinics in Manchester, Concord, Keene, Greenland and Derry.

Mr. Foster said Tuesday that it is premature to bring a case against the law.

The law, when it takes effect Thursday, requires abortion clinics to first put up signage about the buffer zone. “As far as I know, none of the centers have done that yet,” said Mr. Foster, adding that the clinics are expected “to narrowly tailor” a buffer zone to the needs of their clinic.

“The Supreme Court decision did not say that Massachusetts’ law was facially unconstitutional, but as-applied, it was,” Mr. Foster added. “So we will see what happens here. But as of now, we think it’s premature” to try to block the law.

In addition to Mr. Foster, the lawsuit names as defendants five county law officials; the cities of Manchester, Concord and Keene; and the towns of Greenland and Derry.

Pro-choice organizations applauded passage of the law.

“New Hampshire cannot afford even one act of violence toward a woman and we should not tolerate the current harassment happening outside reproductive health care facilities in our state,” Sara Persechino, policy and community relations director of NARAL Pro-Choice New Hampshire, said earlier this year.

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