The U.S. Supreme Court is always busy at the end of its term, and this year is no different. We've seen a few "government" cases over the past week or so, including the cell phone privacy case we reported on earlier this week. Today, we are reporting on yesterday's decision striking down Massachusetts' law that imposes a 35-foot buffer zone between abortion facilities and protesters because the law violated the First Amendment. McCullen v. Coakley (USSCT, June 26, 2014).
In 2007, Massachusetts enacted a law that made it a crime for someone to knowingly stand on a public way or sidewalk within 35 feet of the entrance of a reproductive health care facility, defined as a place where abortions are offered or performed (but excepting hospitals). The law also makes it a crime to knowingly obstruct access to an abortion clinic. A lawsuit was filed to challenge the law by individuals who engage in "sidewalk counseling" outside abortion clinics. They claimed that the law hampered their ability to counsel people on alternatives to abortion. The plaintiffs asked the court to issue an injunction to enjoin enforcement of the law based on the First Amendment. The district court and court of appeals ruled against the plaintiffs, who then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the lower courts, finding the buffer zone law unconstitutional, as a violation of the First Amendment. First, the Court determined that the area regulated by the law (sidewalks and streets) are a traditional public forum, and the government's ability to regulate speech in these locations is very limited. Although the Court determined that the law was "content-neutral", it was not narrowly tailored because it burdened more speech than was necessary to further the government's interests. While the state has a legitimate interest in maintaining public safety on streets and sidewalks, the serious burden on speech deprived individuals of their ability to communicate with arriving patients. Moving the individuals outside of the entrance area went too far in restricting their speech. The Court also determined that there were alternative ways to deal with obstructions to the entrance of these facilities, including having police order people to move. In short, the Court held that the law went too far.
The decision was unanimous, although there were two separate concurring opinions that would have decided that the law was unconstitutional on different grounds.
Post Authored by Julie Tappendorf, Ancel Glink