The U.S. Supreme Court's decision Thursday in McCullen v. Coakley quickly provoked a fair amount of outrage. The case concerned a Massachusetts law creating a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics, in which protestors could not tread. Anti-abortion activist Eleanor McCullen argued—and Supreme Court justices unanimously agreed—that the buffer zones were an unconstitutional infringement on free speech. But the court's decision was narrow in scope, rejecting not the idea of buffer zones per se but the way this particular Massachusetts law was written.
"For a problem shown to arise only once a week in one city at one clinic, creating 35-foot buffer zones at every clinic across the Commonwealth is hardly a narrowly tailored solution," wrote Chief Justice John Roberts, in an opinion cosigned by the court's four liberal justices (the other justices offered concurring opinions). Roberts suggested that a small buffer zone or a less broad law might pass muster.
The decision seems like one that should appease folks on both side of the issue, if not necessarily thrill them. The court was careful to balance the safety interests of abortion clinic patients and staff with First Amendment rights.
Here's how Cenk Uygur, host of the progressive political commentary program The Young Turks responded:
"You're gonna yell at those women making the toughest decision of their lives—a choice that's between them, their doctor, and having nothing to do with you or big government or your so-called god, which might not be their god? Well, you tell me every day that I've got Second Amendment rights. I guess in Massachusetts, Colorado, [and] Montana, those women have to show up with their guns and be like, 'Okay, you've got rights. You've got a right to get in my face; I've got a right to stand my ground, right?' I mean, that's what I'm told by conservatives day in and day out."
Oof, so much mess to unpack there. First, Uygur seems to suggest that being against a woman's legal right to make her own medical decisions is somehow anti "big government." Because this makes so obviously little sense, I'm going to suggest that Uygur is just throwing in "big government" there as a dog whistle for the kind of people who think wanting to limit government power is some sort of nutty, extremist idea.
Moving on to the meat of Uygur's comments here: Why, yes, women seeking abortions do also have second amendment rights. If they feel physically unsafe heading to an abortion clinic, they could very well bring along a gun. And if they needed it for self defense, they could use that gun. If they chose to wave said gun in the face of people peacefully protesting, they would be subject to the same punishments as anyone who recklessly brandishes and threatens people with a gun.
I am not sure what is controversial about this. And I would assume that most conservatives, even extremely anti-abortion conservatives, believe that even women seeking abortions have Second Amendment rights. That is the thing about constitutional rights in this country: They apply even to people you don't like. Liberals may not like protesters like McCullen, but that doesn't mean she doesn't have First Amendment rights. And for the First Amendment to mean anything, it has to be interpreted broadly.
I think people like McCullen are scum, but I'm sure she'd think the same about me. If I was the type inclined to theatrics, I may choose to go protest her protests, to stand by her side advocating for reproductive rights—and I can't imaging many liberals having trouble with this. But if we create a free speech paradigm where McCullen's words and actions are illegal, than so would mine be. And a government big enough to arbitrarily suppress speech that's distasteful is also a government big enough to strip away any sorts of rights, including the reproductive rights liberals are so vociferously defending here.
When I wrote about this issue for another publication in January, I admit that I had a different viewpoint. But I wasn't fully grasping the free speech implications then, and the more I've read about the case, the more I've come around. For people dedicated to the health and safety of those entering abortion clinics, I understand why the buffer zones may seem like an appealing idea. But only if you consider them solely within this context. If people want the right to protest outside Monsanto or the Westboro Baptist Church or wherever else, than McCullen and her ilk has to be allowed to protest outside abortion clinics.
Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal asks, "why must harassment, initimidation, and terror have to be endured before women's constitutional rights are protected?" But "harassment and intimidation are already against the law, quite correctly," as a surprisingly cogent New York Daily News editorial notes.
In New York State, it is specifically illegal to use or threaten force to injure, intimidate or interfere with access to abortion clinics. In New York City, an especially powerful law makes it a crime "to follow and harass another person within 15 feet of the premises of a reproductive health care facility."
Massachusetts went far beyond that.
Thuggery is a crime. Speech, even loud and impassioned speech, is the sometimes uncomfortable consequence of living in a free society.
Anyway, here's the whole Uygur segment, if you're feeling like a dose of outraged, disingenuous smarm:
h/t Chanelle Johnson