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Massachusetts bill limiting protests at abortion clinics goes to governor

By Elizabeth Barber

BOSTON (Reuters) - A bill to limit demonstrations around Massachusetts abortion clinics passed the state's House of Representatives on Wednesday and headed to Governor Deval Patrick.

Patrick, a Democrat, called for new measures after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last month that a 2007 state law barring protesters from coming within 35 feet (11 meters) of reproductive health facilities violated abortion opponents’ right to free speech.

Lawmakers in the two chambers of the Democrat-controlled state legislature sought to craft a legal fix that would protect people entering abortion facilities but also let demonstrators engage woman in quiet conversations.

"We are confident that this new set of tools to help us protect women does not infringe on anyone's First Amendment rights," said Martha Coakley, the state's attorney general and a Democratic candidate for governor, in a recent interview. "We are only responding to behavior that crosses a line."

The measure, which passed the House 116-35, would empower police to issue a dispersal order against anyone found to be blocking access to abortion clinics. That order would ban the person from coming within 25 feet of the clinic's doors for up to eight hours.

The legislation would also prohibit demonstrators from using "force, physical act or threat of force" against anyone entering or leaving an abortion clinic and from attempting to impede a person or vehicle’s access to a clinic. Violating such restrictions, or ignoring a dispersal order, would be punishable with fines and jail time on first offense.

During an acrimonious debate on Wednesday that put ideological fault lines in blunt relief, opponents of the bill objected to it on multiple grounds, including that abortion clinics were receiving unequal, special treatment. Critics also said it would squelch free speech, since protesters – uncertain of what might be construed as intimidation – would be too afraid of legal action to come near the clinics.

"That chills free speech," said Representative James Lyons, a Republican.

(Editing by Scott Malone and Steve Orlofsky)

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