In a unanimous decision today, the Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts buffer zone law prohibiting pro-life free speech outside abortion clinics. The decision is a huge victory for pro-life sidewalk counselors who provide women with abortion alternatives. The decision strikes down a Massachusetts law that created a 35-foot “buffer zone” restricting pro-life advocates from speaking with people entering abortion facilities.
Saying the abortion buffer zone is “inconsistent with the First Amendment,” the Supreme Court ruled that that the buffer zone violated the First Amendment because it “restricts access to ‘public way[s]’ and ‘sidewalk[s],’ places that have traditionally been open for speech activities.”
Masschusetts Citizens for Life reacted to the decision in an email to LifeNews:
Massachusetts Citizens for Life welcomes the Supreme Court unanimous decision, McCullen v. Coakley, which strikes down the Massachusetts so-called Buffer Zone as a violation of the First Amendment. The court reiterates tradition in this country that the sidewalk is the vehicle for free speech. There are already laws on the books which prohibit blocking entrances, harassing people, etc.The McCullen decision makes it clear that more restrictive laws may be written only if the current laws are not working – something that the state of Massachusetts failed to prove.
Mark Rienzi, professor of constitutional law at Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law and lead counsel in McCullen v. Coakley, told LifeNews, “Americans have the freedom to talk to whomever they please on public sidewalks. That includes peaceful pro-lifers like Eleanor McCullen, who just wants to offer information and help to women who would like it. The Supreme Court has affirmed a critical freedom that has been an essential part of American life since the nation’s founding.”
Kristan Hawkins, the president of Students for Life of America, told LifeNews:
“Today’s Supreme Court ruling in McCullen v. Coakley is wonderful news for all Americans because it upholds our crucial First Amendment rights of free speech but perhaps no more important than for women considering abortion because it frees sidewalk counselors at abortion facilities to be able to offer compassionate and caring alternatives.
“While the ruling is great news for the free speech of anti-abortion advocates, this isn’t about us. This is about giving women the opportunity to be informed of all of their options and isn’t that what the pro-abortion movement is all about? If Planned Parenthood and their allies truly favored choice and not their pocketbooks, they would be elated at this decision as well. Because if abortion is right and harms no one, then why not give the woman a chance at choosing life by presenting her options she may not even know about? Sidewalk counselors can’t stop women from having abortions, but they can offer information, resources, and just a listening ear to those young women who feel desperate and alone.
“Because of this ruling striking down the buffer zone and upholding our constitutional rights, pro-life students across the nation will continue to be that compassionate lifeline for women in their most desperate hour, helping her to choose life for both her and her child.”
Americans United for Life legal counsel Bill Saunders previously wrote at LifeNews about the scope and magnitude of the case:
For years, the government in Massachusetts has been treating public sidewalks as private property of the abortion clinic, with criminal penalties for anyone that offers life-affirming alternatives. But among the decisions to be issued by the U.S. Supreme Court by the end of June is a case challenging that restrictive Massachusetts law, McCullen v. Coakley. Hopefully, the Court will go further and reverse a 2000 decision, Hill v. Colorado, which has been the basis of restrictions on pro-life free speech ever since.
In 2007, Massachusetts enacted a law that prohibits anyone to “enter or remain on a public way or sidewalk adjacent” to a stand-alone abortion facility, but it does not equally apply to all persons. The “no entry zone” is actually a “no pro-life speech” zone, as the Massachusetts government explicitly exempts employees or agents of the abortion facilityacting within their scope of employment.
Americans United for Life has been actively involved opposing this anti-American, anti-speech law, twice filing an amicus brief on behalf of 40 Days for Life. In 2009, we filed an amicus brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to hear this case (on petition for cert). This past fall, we filed again, urging the Court to overturn the law.
The AUL brief explains how the Massachusetts law violates the First Amendment freedom of speech rights of 40 Days for Life by establishing a no pro-life speech zone, where no alternatives to abortion may be offered. Contrary to the First Amendment and Supreme Court precedent, it forces pro-life speakers to either shout (from 35 feet away) or be silent, effectively foreclosing speech by those who engage in personal, direct, peaceful communication.
An abortion clinic employee, under the law, is allowed to approach women on the public sidewalk and say anything. However, our client, 40 Days for Life, cannot on that same public sidewalk offer, “I can help you” or even stand and pray without facing criminal penalties.
Even if a woman consents to listen or wants to hear what 40 Days has to say on that public sidewalk, that communication is not allowed by the draconian Massachusetts law.
Such blatant viewpoint discrimination should be held unconstitutional, even under the standards of the Supreme Court’s 2000 decision, Hill v. Colorado. Important to the Court’s finding in Hill that the “no approach” Colorado statute was “viewpoint neutral” was that it applied to “all” speakers: “That is the level of neutrality that the Constitution demands.” The Massachusetts statute clearly does not meet that test.
But the Court in McCullen has the opportunity to do more than merely correctly apply Hill; it has the opportunity to correct the strained reasoning of the majority in Hill that upheld the Colorado statute.
In Hill, Justice Kennedy poignantly opened his dissent, writing that “[t]he Court’s holding contradicts more than a half century of well-established First Amendment principles. For the first time, the Court approves a law which bars a private citizen from passing a message, in a peaceful manner and on a profound moral issue, to a fellow citizen on a public sidewalk.” He continued, “If from this time forward the Court repeats its grave errors of analysis, we shall have no longer the proud tradition of free and open discourse in a public forum.”
It is time to reverse Hill. Let us hope the Supreme Court will do so, thereby restoring the free speech rights of pro-life Americans not only in Massachusetts but throughout the land.