01 July 2014

Law in Plain English: McCullen v. Coakley

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe court decisions in plain English. For more detail and background on the legal issues, see the link to the case below. For similar posts, click here.

Planned Parenthood's clinic in Boston, MA. The
yellow line on the sidewalk and street marks the
35-feet buffer zone. Image from Google Street View.
SCOTUSblogMcCullen v. Coakley

Argument: Jan 15 2014 (Aud.)

Discussion: The Massachusetts legislature passed a law that created fixed and floating buffer zones around abortion clinics. In 2007, the legislature amended the statute to create a fixed thirty-five-foot buffer zone around the entrances, exits, and driveways of abortion clinics. McCullen and other plaintiffs regularly engage in "sidewalk counseling" at abortion clinics, but argue that the buffer zones prevent close personal contact with their intended audience and, thus, impede their ability to communicate effectively. The District Court ruled that the statute is a content-neutral, narrowly tailored time-place-manner regulation that protects the rights of prospective patients and clinic employees without offending the First Amendment rights of others; and the First Circuit affirmed.

Planned Parenthood's Springfield, MA clinic has
white arcs painted on the street to represent the
buffer zone. Image from Google Street View.
Issue: The questions before the Court are (1) whether the First Circuit erred in upholding Massachusetts’s selective exclusion law – which makes it a crime for speakers other than clinic “employees or agents...acting within the scope of their employment” to “enter or remain on a public way or sidewalk” within thirty-five feet of an entrance, exit, or driveway of “a reproductive health care facility” – under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, on its face and as applied to petitioners; (2) whether, if Hill v. Colorado permits enforcement of this law, Hill should be limited or overruled.

Holding:  In a 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the Massachusetts law which makes it a crime to stand on a public road or sidewalk within thirty-five feet of a reproductive health care facility violates the First Amendment.
Planned Parenthood's Worcester, MA clinic has
white arcs painted on the street to represent the
buffer zone. Image from Google Street View.

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