June Updates: Public fora, content-neutrality, and my literature review

I have spent the past month digging into the literature on my topic in order to assess the political and social context in which clinic access laws—and more specifically, buffer zone laws—are enacted. There are hundreds of articles and books available to read, so one of the hardest parts of this step has been remaining focused on the literature most relevant to my project. On most days, I create a reading list for myself and then tackle it, taking notes and highlighting important passages as I go. This process of active reading saves me time when I am writing my literature review, as I can easily find useful quotes by looking through my document of notes instead of sifting through all my articles and books.

Three sources that have been extremely helpful to my understanding of this topic are Kevin O’Neill’s 1999 article, “Disentangling the Law of Public Protest,” as well as Joshua Wilson’s book, The Street Politics of Abortion (2013), and Timothy Zick’s book, Speech Out of Doors: Preserving First Amendment Liberties in Public Places (fun fact—Timothy Zick is a professor at the William & Mary School of Law!). Both of these sources have been immensely helpful not only in understanding why abortion clinic buffer zone laws are established but also in gaining insight into the constitutional doctrines that have shaped the jurisprudence related to these statutes.

I thought for my blog post today, I would share some of this insight with you—it helps me to better understand my project when I detach myself from the complicated legal terms commonly used in the literature and discuss what I have learned as though I am explaining it to a friend. With that in mind, below are two of the most significant First Amendment doctrines in buffer zone law jurisprudence:

1. Public forum doctrine

As I have mentioned before in my previous blog posts, buffer zone laws have been challenged on the grounds that they violate anti-abortion protestors’ and “sidewalk counselors’” First Amendment right to free speech. These laws are particularly polarizing because they constitute a restriction on speech and expression in public fora, or government-owned property such as streets and sidewalks. Given that these areas have traditionally been places where people could openly express their views, protest, and debate issues with one another, the courts often afford speech and expression in these areas high levels of protection. As a result, when states and municipalities place restrictions on where anti-abortion protests can take place outside of clinics, protestors argue that these laws go too far by defending those seeking abortions from speech and expression in public spaces.

2. Content-neutrality

Although they restrict forms of speech and expression that are often insulated from regulation, buffer zones have been found constitutional. In order to be upheld, buffer zone laws must be content-neutral time, place, and manner restrictions. First, content-neutral restrictions on speech and expression are those that are “justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech” (Ward v. Rock Against Racism, pp. 791). That is, these kinds of speech regulations do not censor a specific speaker, viewpoint, or message, nor are they enacted to avoid the potential effects of the speech (Wilson, 2013, pp. 6). Second, time, place, and manner restrictions are somewhat self-explanatory: they are restrictions on when, where, and how speech and expression manifests. Buffer zones are a “place” restriction, as they create a no-protest zone on the streets and sidewalks near and around clinics.

I hope my explanations were clear and that you learned something new! If you have questions or comments for me, please let me know.

Until next month,