High court declines to hear abortion clinic buffer-zone challenge

Wednesday, January 12, 2000

The U.S. Supreme Court earlier this week refused to hear the appeal of anti-abortion protesters who had challenged a South Carolina Supreme Court ruling upholding a buffer zone around a medical center in Greensboro, S.C.

Pastor Michael Cloer, director of Pastors for Life, was ordered by a South Carolina judge in 1997 to quit protesting within a 12-foot buffer zone along either side of Palmetto State Medical Center, a facility operated by Gynecology, Inc.

Gynecology Clinic, Inc. had sued Cloer and Pastors for Life in state court in 1994, alleging nuisance and conspiracy. Though the nuisance claims were dismissed, the trial court ruled in favor of the clinic on the conspiracy claim.

The trial court injunction established the buffer zone, prohibited trespassing, prohibited the obstruction of traffic outside the medical facility and ordered the protesters not to make any noises that would be heard inside the clinic.

Last March, the South Carolina Supreme Court affirmed the injunction.

Cloer and Pastors for Life appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that the injunction violated their First Amendment rights. On Jan. 10, the high court declined to review the South Carolina high court’s decision in Cloer v. Gynecology Clinic, Inc.

However, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented from the denial of certiorari. In his opinion, Scalia acknowledged that “the First Amendment is not a license for lawlessness, and when abortion protestors engage in such acts as trespassing upon private property and deliberately obstructing access to clinics, they are accountable to the law.”

However, Scalia called Cloer “remarkable” because the South Carolina Supreme Court opinion, in his mind, would stifle lawful First Amendment activity. “The extraordinary application of state civil-conspiracy law to attempts to persuade persons not to patronize certain businesses would outlaw many activities long thought to be protected by the First Amendment,” he wrote.

“If this sort of persuasive activity can be swept away under state civil-conspiracy laws, some of our most significant First Amendment jurisprudence becomes academic,” Scalia continued.

Scalia said the South Carolina ruling would have outlawed civil-rights boycotts during the 1960s and “routine picketing by labor unions.”

Four justices must vote to take a case before the Supreme Court will grant a writ of certiorari.

Cloer said that he and his group “will abide by the buffer zone, but we will be placed one inch outside the buffer zone praying.”

“There is no other place in South Carolina where it is illegal to share our beliefs in the Gospel,” he said.

The U.S. Supreme Court has decided two abortion clinic buffer-zone cases in the last few years — Madsen v. Women’s Health Center in 1994 and Schenck v. Pro-Choice Network in 1997.

On Jan. 19, the high court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in another abortion clinic buffer-zone case, Hill v. Colorado.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.