Schenck v. Pro-choice Network (1996)
This month’s Landmark Supreme Court Cases and the Constitution eLesson spotlights the First Amendment case of Schenck v. Pro-Choice Network of Western NY (1996). This case about the free speech and assembly rights of citizens who wished to protest abortion involved two types of “buffer zone” restrictions. The Supreme Court ruled that “fixed buffer zones” around abortion clinics were constitutional, while “floating buffer zones” around individuals entering the clinics were not.
In the early 1990s, a group of New York state doctors and family-planning groups filed suit against several pro-life groups, complaining of illegal activities outside abortion clinics. According to the case records, protestors staged “numerous large scale blockades in which protesters marched, stood, knelt, sat, or lay in clinic parking lot driveways and doorways, blocking or hindering cars from entering the lots, and patients and clinic employees from entering the clinics.”
Another strategy used by the clinic protestors to employ what they called “side walk counselors” to speak one-on-one with women entering the clinic and try to change their minds about having an abortion. The record showed that the discussions sometimes turned into pushing, shoving, and other unlawful conduct.
A District Court issued a ruling preventing the pro-life groups from coming within 15 feet of abortion clinics, as well as from coming within 15 feet of persons entering the clinics. The pro-life groups argued these restrictions violated their First Amendment rights. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court had to decide the constitutional questions: Were the fifteen-foot “buffer zone” around abortion clinics and/or the “floating buffer zones” around people entering the clinics unconstitutional restrictions on the free speech and assembly rights of the pro-life protestors?
The Court upheld the “fixed buffer zones” around clinics but struck down the “floating buffer zones.” The fixed buffers, the Court held, were a reasonable way of maintaining public safety. Further, the Court also noted that the protestors had a record of illegal activities including blocking doorways, harassment and spitting in clinic users’ faces—activities not protected by the First Amendment. The fixed buffer zones did not prevent protestors from speaking, but did help prevent the unlawful conduct.
On the other hand, the Court struck down the “floating buffer zones” around people entering the clinic. The Court reasoned, “This is a broad prohibition, both because of the type of speech restricted and the nature of the location. Leafletting and commenting on matters of public concern are classic forms of speech that lie at the heart of the First Amendment, and speech in public areas is at its most protected on public sidewalks, a prototypical example of a traditional public forum.”
Comprehension and Critical Thinking Questions
- Why did a group of doctors and pro-choice groups file suit against several pro-life groups in Schenck v. Pro-Choice Network of Western NY?
- What two types of “buffers” were at issue in the case?
- How did the Supreme Court rule on the “buffer zones”?
- Do you agree with the Court’s ruling? Why or why not?
- At least one dissenting Justice criticized the majority ruling for implying that people have a right to be free from unwelcome or offensive speech. Do you believe there is such a right? If so, what would be the implications of that right?
- Imagine you are at a demonstration in a public park, on a sidewalk, or another public place. You feel strongly about the issue you are demonstrating about and want to bring your message to others. Should government have the power to censor you if you:
Said something that offended anyone?
Said something that offended some?
Said something that offended most?