Supreme Court declines to hear challenge to New York law allowing abortion clinic buffer zones

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to hear a challenge to a New York law allowing abortion clinic buffer zones, essentially upholding 23-year federal precedent. 

Just days after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year – ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that the U.S. Constitution does not guarantee the right to an abortion and that the matter should be decided by the states – Westchester County, New York, passed a local law making it a misdemeanor to knowingly approach within eight feet of another person entering an abortion clinic for the purpose of protesting, counseling or handing any material to them. 

The law said penalties can include a fine or up to six months in prison, while repeated violations can result in up to a year behind bars.

Debra Vitagliano, a Catholic “sidewalk counselor” who worked to present women with abortion alternatives outside Planned Parenthood clinics, sued Westchester County last November, arguing the law violated her First Amendment rights. Though the Second Circuit later ruled the Westchester County “bubble zone” law was a valid content-neutral, time, place, and manner restriction on speech, Vitagliano had advanced the matter to the Supreme Court, seeking to have abortion clinic buffer zone precedent overturned. 

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The Supreme Court issued a brief order Monday declining to hear the dispute, letting the Second Circuit decision stand under the 23-year precedent. No dissents were noted.

The Supreme Court declined an appeal to abortion clinic buffer zone precedent. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

“A pregnant woman in need deserves to know that she and her child will be loved, defended, and supported. Westchester County threatened to put me in jail for over a year, just for speaking a message of hope to women outside abortion clinics,” Vitagliano, a resident of Westchester County, said in a statement to Fox News Digital on Monday, reacting to the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case.When I asked the Supreme Court to take my case, Westchester County repealed the law, admitting it had not been necessary to threaten women with jail time for peaceful conversations. No government official should try to outlaw compassionate conversations on a public sidewalk.”

In 2000, the Supreme Court decided in Hill v. Colorado to uphold a 1993 state statute making it unlawful for any person within 100 feet of a health care facility’s entrance to “knowingly approach” within eight feet of another person, without that person’s consent, in order to pass “a leaflet or handbill to, display a sign to, or engage in oral protest, education, or counseling with [that] person.” The decision essentially declared it appropriate to regulate pro-life protesters’ free speech within 100 feet of abortion clinics. 

Pro-life protesters outside SCOTUS

Pro-life activists protest near a Women’s March rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court Building on June 24, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

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In appealing the matter to the Supreme Court, lawyers for Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represents Vitagliano, wrote, “If the First Amendment protects anything, it protects the right to engage in peaceful, face-to-face conversations about important matters on a public sidewalk,” according to The Hill. Students for Life of America, Christian Legal Society, Knights of Columbus, the group that organizes the annual March for Life, as well as 14 Republican attorneys general backed Vitagliano’s appeal. 

“There is no abortion exception to the First Amendment,” the AGs wrote in court papers backing Vitagliano’s appeal. “Sidewalk counseling is not second-class speech, and government restrictions on it must meet the same standards as every other content-based restriction. Hill was wrong from the moment it was decided. And only this Court can fix it.”

Pro-abortion activists outside SCOTUS

Pro-abortion activists march to the U.S. Supreme Court on June 24, 2023.  (Anna Rose Layden/Getty Images)

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In the Dobbs decision last year, Justice Samuel Alito, joined by four fellow conservative justices, cited Hill v. Colorado in ruling that Roe v. Wade had “distorted First Amendment doctrines.” Before then, Alito had also argued that Hill v. Colorado was an “erroneous decision” now with “defunct status.”

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