McCullen v. Coakley
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Description: A Massachusetts law created a 35-foot “buffer zone” restricting pro-life advocates from speaking with people entering abortion facilities. In 2007, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick signed S.B. 1353, which created the zone.
US Supreme Court unanimous in striking down Mass. anti-speech buffer zone
High court calls law that censors free speech of pro-life advocates unconstitutional
Alliance Defending Freedom filed the lawsuit McCullen v. Coakley in 2008 with then lead counsel and allied attorney Michael De Primo and has also provided funding for the case since then. De Primo has been litigating the case together with two other allied attorneys, Philip Moran and Mark Rienzi. Rienzi, professor of constitutional law at Catholic University of America’s Columbus School of Law, is currently lead counsel alongside attorneys with the Washington, D.C. firm Wilmer, Cutler, Pickering, Hale & Dorr, LLP.
“Americans have the freedom to talk to whomever they please on public sidewalks,” said Rienzi, who argued before the court on Jan. 14. “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.”
“The government cannot be allowed to create censorship zones where the First Amendment doesn’t apply,” added De Primo. “This buffer zone censored speakers from engaging in constitutionally protected speech. The Supreme Court rightly struck down the law that created the zone.”
On Nov. 13, 2007, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick signed into law S.B. 1353, which created the buffer zone. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear McCullen v. Coakley in June of last year.
“It is no accident that public streets and sidewalks have developed as venues for the exchange of ideas,” the Supreme Court wrote in its opinion. “Even today, they remain one of the few places where a speaker can be confident that he is not simply preaching to the choir…. In light of the First Amendment’s purpose ‘to preserve an uninhibited marketplace of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail…,’ this aspect of traditional public fora is a virtue, not a vice.”
“Peaceful pro-life citizens should be able to freely share their message with mothers in vital need without being forced to shout from outside an anti-speech zone,” explained Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel Steven H. Aden. “As the Supreme Court found, Massachusetts had no constitutional basis for creating speech-restricted zones that exist to hinder a particular point of view.”
- “In unrefuted testimony, petitioners say they have collectively persuaded hundreds of women to forgo abortions. The buffer zones have displaced petitioners.”
- “Obstructed access and congested sidewalks are problems no matter what caused them. A group of individuals can obstruct clinic access and clog sidewalks just as much when they loiter as when they protest abortion or counsel patients.”
- “There is no suggestion in the record that any of the clinics authorize their employees to speak about abortion in the buffer zones.… At the same time, the buffer zones impose serious burdens on petitioners’ speech. At each of the three Planned Parenthood clinics where petitioners attempt to counsel patients, the zones carve out a significant portion of the adjacent public sidewalks, pushing petitioners well back from the clinics’ entrances and driveways. The zones thereby compromise petitioners’ ability to initiate the close, personal conversations that they view as essential to ‘sidewalk counseling.’”
- “McCullen is often reduced to raising her voice at patients from outside the zone—a mode of communication sharply at odds with the compassionate message she wishes to convey.”
- “[W]e have observed that ‘one-on-one communication’ is ‘the most effective, fundamental, and perhaps economical avenue of political discourse.’”
- “At the outset, we note that the Act is truly exceptional: Respondents and their amici identify no other State with a law that creates fixed buffer zones around abortion clinics.”
- “A painted line on the sidewalk is easy to enforce, but the prime objective of the First Amendment is not efficiency.”
- “Given the vital First Amendment interests at stake, it is not enough for Massachusetts simply to say that other approaches have not worked…. In short, the Commonwealth has not shown that it seriously undertook to address the problem with less intrusive tools readily available to it. Nor has it shown that it considered different methods that other jurisdictions have found effective.”
- Pronunciation guide: De Primo (dih-PREE’-moh), Rienzi (Ree-EN'-zee)
Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
Additional resources: McCullen v. Coakley
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Previous news releases:
- 2014-06-26: US Supreme Court strikes down Mass. anti-speech buffer zone
- 2014-01-14: US Supreme Court to hear arguments Wednesday in ‘Cradle of Liberty’ buffer zone case
- 2013-06-24: US Supreme Court to weigh in on buffer zone case in ‘Cradle of Liberty’
- 2009-05-04: ADF-allied attorney available to media following hearing in Mass. ‘buffer zone’ case
- 2009-01-27: Mass. law restricting speech around abortion clinics challenged on appeal
- 2008-01-21: ADF attorneys file suit against law silencing pro-life advocates in the “Cradle of Liberty”
- Matt Bowman: A quiet grandmother wins one for free speech at the Supreme Court (Washington Times, 2014-07-01)
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