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BALANCING SPEECH AND CHOICE

Question: Does it abridge protesters' right of free speech to require them to stay eight feet away from women entering abortion clinics?

Answer: Only if they talk in a whisper.

The U.S. Supreme Court wrestled with this question last week, testing whether a Colorado law passes constitutional muster. The measure is clearly aimed at abortion protesters, though it is written more broadly. It says that within a 100-foot zone around the entrance to any health-care facility, protesters may not approach within eight feet of another person without that individual's consent. It is the only such law in the country.

The lawyer for three demonstrators challenging the law contended that it "converts protected speech into a crime," but the position is preposterous on its face. Nothing in this law prohibits anyone from speaking in a normal voice to women entering an abortion clinic.

It might prevent them from harassing the women -- shouting in their faces, blocking their progress or shoving unwanted pictures in front of them -- but if that adds up to an abridgment of free speech, then zoning laws that keep noisy printing presses out of residential neighborhoods do the same to freedom of the press. Which is to say that they don't. The protesters can continue to get their message across, just as the publishers can keep on printing.

This law is a reasonable response to a genuine need. Too many protesters have gone beyond making an argument against abortion, to trying to intimidate women out of having one. No doubt, many of them believe they are doing good, but that doesn't give them the right to engage in harassment. Those protests can also tilt into violence, as Buffalo knows all too well.

Abortion is an intensely emotional subject with a few areas of black and white separated by large expanses of gray. Activists on both sides of the question have every right -- and even an obligation -- to state their cases vigorously. But women making the difficult decision about abortion also have rights, and society at large has a legitimate interest in ensuring that protests don't spin out of control.

Colorado's law makes a fair effort at balancing those interests. The Supreme Court should affirm the law and then New York should copy it.

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