And news reporters heard different things about it, apparently.

They also use agenda driven language to report it, sometimes doing semantic gymnastics to cue readers to feel positive or negative to different groups, as Walter Lippman described in his exceptional little book Public Opinion.

The Hill reports that Justices appear split on clinic buffer zones.

The Supreme Court appeared split Wednesday during arguments over whether buffer zones around abortion clinics in Massachusetts violate free speech rights. The case centers on anti-abortion-rights activists who desire to speak to women as they enter reproductive healthcare clinics in the state. A 2007 law created a buffer zone around clinics in Massachusetts, mandating that protesters and would-be sidewalk counselors remain 35 feet away from entrances.

“The case centers on anti-abortion-rights activists who desire to speak to women as they enter reproductive healthcare clinics in the state.” That sentence alone is worth a post. Along with clarification on the buffer zone that forces “protesters” and “would-be sidewalk counselors” to remain as far from entrances as possible.

Back some years ago, media style books changed the identifier ‘pro-life’ to a variety of negative terms, even if they are bulky and transparent, like “anti-abortion-rights activists.” Although the term ‘pro-lifer’ had become a pejorative at that point, it still had to be changed, because someone of the opposite belief, cause or ideology would have to be “pro” something opposite, and they just couldn’t handle being “pro-abortion.”

If we are to level the playing field for public debate, what would be the equal and opposite term for people who favor abortion on demand? They’re never called “anti” anything, never called “activists”, and never associated with the word “rights” unless it’s attached to abortion. Such as, say, human rights. Because if there is a pregnant woman, there is a human life in her. The doctor treating her is treating two patients. The abortionist ‘terminates’ one of them, ending her or his life. But that’s the law, and we’re just talking about language for now. And we’ll get back to that buffer zone law in a moment. I just want honesty here.

So let’s use language that describes people fairly. Though that would require the acknowledgement by abortion-rights activists (yes, they are activists, too) that “people”, or let’s boil it down to ‘human beings’, have their lives ended in what that Hill piece refers to as “reproductive healthcare clinics”, a euphemism for abortion clinics. The life that reproduction started is not given “healthcare” in those clinics, it is terminated, ended, killed and discarded. Just to be clear.

And by the way, what makes a sidewalk counselor a “would-be” sidewalk counselor, other than the intention to sneer at the term and dismiss the likelihood such person would actually be on that sidewalk to provide something of aid to women within earshot, who made the choice to pay attention to them. It is, after all, about choice, isn’t it?

Over at Politico, they handled the same story a bit differently, saying Justices were “skeptical”, significantly so.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday showed significant skepticism about a Massachusetts law that restricts speech around abortion facilities, with justices suggesting that it could violate the First Amendment.

The Politico piece also uses the standard media language setting the scene and describing the players, but it’s more probing and analytical.

Here’s the setup:

Massachusetts, joined by the Obama administration during oral arguments, defended a state law that prohibits speech within 35 feet of an abortion facility entrance except for passersby and employees or other agents of the clinic or health care facility.

Opponents of the law, including a woman who regularly tries to conduct “sidewalk counseling” outside of a Boston clinic and who brought this case, say the exemption for employees creates an unconstitutional imbalance in speech. The woman, Eleanor McCullen, said her anti-abortion speech is limited while the speech of those who support the clinic is not.

But Jennifer Miller, who argued the case for Massachusetts, said the law restricts pro-abortion rights and anti-abortion rights speech in similar ways and that anything a clinic employee says inside the buffer zone is merely “incidental” speech.

Here’s some context and analytical reporting:

A key issue in the case, McCullen v. Coakley, is whether Massachusetts can differentiate between people who want to peaceably protest or consult people outside of the facility and those who intend to be violent or disruptive. Miller, as well as the Obama administration, argued that it is “enormously difficult” to make that distinction, so everything from loud protests to quiet conversations must be restricted.

Kennedy suggested they were exaggerating the difficulty.

“Even a dog knows the difference between being stumbled over and being kicked,” Kennedy declared, adding that he’s troubled that the Massachusetts law forbids even quiet talk.

“You said there is no guarantee of talking quietly?” he questioned to Miller. “Do you want me to write an opinion and say there’s no free speech right to quietly converse on an issue of public importance?”

Good question. I also learned today from the head of a legal firm that had counsel present in the courtroom that Justice Scalia continued what insiders call his “abortion distortion” line of question, probing a lawyer on his constant use of the term “protestors” for pro-life advocates, or activists, outside the clinics.

Politico continues:

The court’s makeup has changed significantly since the 2000 case, Hill v. Colorado, which created a floating 8-foot buffer zone around someone entering the clinic. Massachusetts’s law draws a fixed line, 35 feet away from the door, that no one but patients and employees can cross.

The court’s ideological center has moved since then, from former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to Kennedy. And the court now includes includes Alito — who strongly questioned the proponents of the Massachusetts law — as well as Roberts, Kagan and Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Kagan, the newest justice, said she had no problem asking “everyone take a step back” outside of a high-tension facility such as an abortion clinic. But she questioned why Massachusetts needed as much as 35 feet.

Another good question.

And here’s an important point that must be made, and was made before the Supreme Court justices.

Mark L. Rienzi, the attorney representing McCullen, insisted that keeping the anti-abortion rights activists [or pro-lifers] so far away inevitably changed their speech, making it more confrontational.

“If you sent me 35 feet further back [from the lectern] and asked me to make my argument from there … you might hear me, but I would suggest you’d receive it quite differently,” he said.

Precisely. I’ve been at two of these locations before, seen the pro-life people praying, heard them talking quietly among themselves and to me, and whenever a car pulled up and a woman got out, always rushed by an abortion clinic escort, I heard one or two pro-life people call out to her to offer help.

Much later, in a salon conversation with the young woman owner I’ve known for years and been friends with as long, this twenty-something single woman told me about going to a nearby Planned Parenthood clinic to get her refill of the pill, and she felt intimidated by ‘those people shouting at me from the other side of the parking lot.’  Knowing the perception and the reality, I casually mentioned that there’s an ordinance requiring them to be that far away, and they weren’t really yelling at her, but projecting their voices to be heard. Thinking she may be going in for an abortion, they wanted her to know there was help for women in a crisis pregnancy who had no other answer. They wanted to offer answers, I said, but couldn’t be heard unless they raised their voices on the other side of that ‘bubble zone’ (as it’s known in these parts) to call out to the women.

She listened, and seemed to deliberate over that.

Now, the justices will do the same.

“It’s plainly discriminatory for the government to say that abortion supporters can speak freely at a given place, but pro-lifers cannot,” said Fr. Frank Pavone, well-known head of Priests for Life. “Then again, bubble zone laws and abortion are based on the same illicit notion, namely that some people have rights and some people don’t.”

The Supreme Court will rule sometime before the end of the term in June.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....