WASHINGTON -- Supreme Court justices jousted today over the free-speech rights of abortion demonstrators and what limits can be placed on their ''sidewalk counseling'' outside clinics.
At issue is a Colorado law that requires protesters to stay at least eight feet away from people entering health-care clinics, unless someone agrees to closer contact to talk or take a leaflet.
''You certainly can convey anything you want to convey orally from a distance of eight feet,'' Justice Sandra Day O'Connor told attorney Jay A. Sekulow, representing three protesters who challenged the law. If a person wants to take a leaflet ''they can and will and it would be the same if it were one foot or eight feet,'' she added.
Justice Antonin Scalia challenged Colorado Solicitor General Michael E. McLachlan's argument that the law was neutrally written.
''I think we know what it's aimed at, which is abortion protesters,'' Scalia said, adding that counseling someone to consider the consequences of abortion is ''a totally different entity when you do it from eight feet away.''
The Colorado Supreme Court upheld the law, and Sekulow asked the justices to reverse that ruling. A decision is expected by July.
The law ''makes the peaceful distribution of a leaflet, the display of a sign ... a crime if prior consent is not obtained,'' Sekulow said.
McLachlan said the measure was aimed to protect vulnerable people seeking health care.
But Justice Anthony M. Kennedy questioned whether the law would bar all protest activity outside a medical office, even if it is only one office in a tall building.
Scalia and Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist asked if the same type of limits could be set on labor picketing.
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