Buffer Zones & Consistency
In the summer of 2014, the United States Supreme Court struck down the Massachusetts law that forbid protesters from approaching within 35 feet of abortion clinics. The buffer zone law was established in response to episodes of violence. Not surprisingly, the court based its ruling on the First Amendment—such a buffer zone violates the right of free expression of those wishing to protest against abortion or who desire to provide unsought counseling to those seeking abortions.
Though I am a staunch supporter of the freedom of expression, I do recognize that there can be legitimate limits on this freedom—especially when such limits provide protection to the life, liberty and property of others. To use the stock examples, freedom of expression does not permit people to engage in death threats, slander, or panicking people by screaming “fire” in a crowded, non-burning theater.
While I do recognize that the buffer zone does serve a legitimate purpose in enhancing safety, I do agree with the court. The grounds for this agreement is that the harm done to freedom of expression by banning protest in public spaces exceeds the risk of harm caused by allowing such protests. Naturally enough, I do agree that people who engage in threatening behavior can be justly removed—but this is handled by existing laws. That said, I do regard the arguments in favor of the buffer zone as having merit—weighing the freedom of expression against safety concerns is challenging and people of good conscience can disagree in this matter.
One rather interesting fact is that the Supreme Court has its own buffer zone—there is a federal law that bans protesters from the plaza of the court. Since the plaza is a public space, it would seem analogous to the public space of the sidewalks covered by the Massachusetts law. Given the Supreme Court’s ruling, the principle seems to be that the First Amendment ensures a right to protest in public spaces—even when there is a history of violence and legitimate safety concerns exist. While the law is whatever those with the biggest guns say it is, there is the matter of the ethics of the matter and this is governed by consistent application.
A principle is consistently applied when it is applied in the same way to similar beings in similar circumstances. Inconsistent application is a problem because it violates three commonly accepted moral assumptions: equality, impartiality and relevant difference.
Equality is the assumption that people are initially morally equal and hence must be treated as such. This requires that moral principles be applied consistently. Naturally, a person’s actions can affect the initially equality. For example, a person who commits horrible evil deeds would not be morally equal to someone who does predominantly good deeds.
Impartiality is the assumption that moral principles must not be applied with partiality. Inconsistent application would involve non-impartial application.
Relevant difference is a common moral assumption. It is the view that different treatment must be justified by relevant differences. What counts as a relevant difference in particular cases can be a matter of great controversy. For example, while many people do not think that gender is a relevant difference in terms of how people should be treated other people think it is very important. This assumption requires that principles be applied consistently.
Given that the plaza of the court is a public space analogous to a sidewalk, then if the First Amendment guarantees the right to protest in public spaces of this sort, then the law forbidding protests in the plaza is unconstitutional and must be struck down. To grant protesters access to the sidewalks outside clinics while forbidding them from the public plaza of the court would be an inconsistent application of the principle. But, of course, there is always a way to counter this.
One way to counter this in a principled way is to show that an alleged inconsistency is merely apparent. One way to do this is by showing that there is a relevant difference in the situation. If the Supreme Court wishes to morally justify their buffer while denying others their buffers, they would need to show a relevant difference that warrants the difference in application. They could, for example, contend that a plaza is relevantly different from a sidewalk. One might point to a size difference and how this impacts protesting. They could also contend that government property is exempt from the law (much like certain state legislatures ban the public from bringing guns into the legislature building even while passing laws allowing people to bring guns into places where other people work)—but they would need to ground the exemption.
My own view, obviously enough, is that there is no relevant difference between the scenarios: if the First Amendment applies to the public spaces around private property, it also applies to the public spaces around state property (which is the most public of public property).