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FREEDOM OF SPEECH, LIMITATIONS ON PROTESTS COLLIDE IN COURT

Two constitutional rights that have clashed on the streets of Buffalo -- freedom of speech and the right to abortion -- were clashing again today in the nation's highest court.

The Supreme Court was hearing oral arguments on whether a Florida judge interfered with the rights of abortion protesters by placing limits on their protests.

This is the latest in a series of abortion-protest cases to reach the high court, but lawyers say this is the most far-reaching.

That's because about two dozen judges nationwide -- including U.S. District Court Judge Richard Arcara of Buffalo -- have imposed similar orders limiting abortion protests. Moreover, the case could redefine the outer limits of the First Amendment.

"The Supreme Court needs to decide once and for all how much freedom of speech pro-lifers have," said Karen Swallow Prior, a leader of the anti-abortion "rescue" movement in Buffalo.

The case centers on the protest restrictions that Judge Robert McGregor imposed in Melbourne, Fla., last year. Those restrictions include a 36-foot buffer zone around an abortion clinic where protesters are not allowed, a 300-foot zone around the clinic in which protesters cannot approach patients, and a similar 300-foot "safe zone" around the homes of clinic employees.

In reaction to blockades in Buffalo, Arcara issued an order in February 1992 that creates a 15-foot buffer zone between abortion protesters and clinic entrances. Unlike the Florida court order, Arcara's order allows "sidewalk counselors" to approach clinic patients to discuss alternatives to abortion.

Noting those differences, lawyers say it's quite possible that the high court will overturn parts, if not all, of the Florida court order while allowing less draconian court orders such as Arcara's to stand.

"Comparing the two, the Buffalo injunction is far less restrictive in allowing for sidewalk counseling," said Glenn E. Murray, a lawyer for the Pro-Choice Network in Buffalo. "For that reason, it would stand a far greater chance of surviving a constitutional attack."

However, abortion foes argue that all "no-speech zones" -- including Arcara's 15-foot zone -- are unconstitutional.

"If no-speech zones are upheld, every form of social protest is in jeopardy," said Mat Staver, a Florida attorney who will represent the abortion protesters in today's case.

Abortion-rights advocates counter by saying that the Florida court order targets illegal conduct -- overwhelming protests that aim to shut down clinics -- rather than what the protesters say. In a court brief supporting the clinic, the Clinton administration notes that the Supreme Court has previously upheld such restrictions aimed at conduct.

Today's case -- Madsen vs. Women's Health Center Inc. -- probably won't be the last word on the issue, either. Congress is on the verge of finalizing a law making it a federal crime to blockade an abortion clinic -- a law that abortion opponents say they will also challenge in court.

Congressional negotiators Tuesday agreed on prison sentences of up to 18 months for abortion protesters who block or damage clinics or intimidate patients or staff.

The maximum federal penalties for blocking access to clinics were considerably lighter in the compromise bill than those the House had approved.

Negotiators on Tuesday resolved differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill, both passed last November.

The compromise now returns to the House and Senate for final votes.

While abortion foes trumpet the free speech issue, abortion providers say the case being argued today is about how their lives have been disrupted.

In its last action on the issue, the high court ruled in favor of the clinics, saying the federal anti-racketeering law could be used to prosecute abortion protesters. Previously, though, the court ruled that an 18th-century anti-protest law did not apply to abortion opponents.

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