The Supreme Court struck down Massachusetts’ abortion clinic buffer zone law, which makes it a crime for pro-life petitioners to stand within 35 feet of an entrance. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the opinion of the court, which concluded the law blocked places occupying a “special position” with regard to First Amendment rights because of their “historic role as sites for discussion and debate”— public sidewalks. The court's opinion in McCullen v. Coakley was unanimous.
Massachusetts passed the law in 2007 as a way to shield patients and staff from harassment while allowing protesters to communicate their message. During oral arguments before the court, Eleanor McCullen, representing pro-life counselors, claimed the Massachusetts’ statute was unconstitutional because it is not a permissible time, place, and manner regulation of free speech. Martha Coakley, attorney general for Massachusetts, claimed it was necessary to protect patients and allowed protestors the ability to reach their targeted audience even if it restricted how they communicated their message.
In 2000, the Court had ruled in favor of a similar Colorado "no approach zone" law, Hill v. Colorado, which set up a “floating buffer zone” within 100 feet of any facility providing health care services, not just reproductive health clinics. Within the buffer zone, it was deemed illegal for anyone to come within 8 feet of another person to hand out a leaflet, engage in education, counseling, or protest, or display a sign. In their oral arguments, McCullen claimed Hill v. Colorado should be substantially narrowed or overruled, while Coakley argued the Massachusetts’ statute was not similar enough to make it a proper vehicle for revisiting that decision.
Given today’s decision, anti-abortion activists may file suits intending to remove similar buffer zones in other states. While Federal laws provide protections for women who are trying to access abortion clinics, some states have added their own laws to enhance security by placing more space between patients and protesters.
Writing for the court, Roberts stated Massachusetts went too far in trying to protect women seeking abortions. “It is no accident that public streets and sidewalks have developed as venues for the exchange of ideas,” Roberts wrote. “Even today, they remain one of the few places where a speaker can be confident that he is not simply preaching to the choir.” Acknowledging that buffer zones, as discussed in the oral arguments, make it easier for the government to implement and enforce safety and clinic access than any possible alternative, “that is not enough to satisfy the First Amendment,” noted Roberts.