Thursday, June 26, 2014
United States Supreme Court Declares Massachusetts' Buffer Zone Unconstitutional in McCullen v. Coakley
A unanimous Court, albeit in separate opinions, found the Massachusetts statute imposing a 35 foot buffer zone around places where abortions are performed violates the First Amendment in its opinion in McCullen v. Coakley, reversing the First Circuit.
Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Roberts - - - who, unusually, did not ask any questions during the oral argument - - -found that the statute was not subject to strict scrutiny because it was content and viewpoint neutral, despite arguments to the contrary. However, the Court found that the statute failed the so-called "time, place, and manner" test articulated in Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U. S. 781 (1989). The Court's opinion - - - joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan - - - concluded that the statute burdened more speech than necessary and was not sufficiently closely tailored. In large part, this was based on the statute's exceptional coverage of public streets and sidewalks. It was also based on the specific petitioners in the case, who are not "protesters," but people who "attempt to engage women approaching the clinics in what they call 'sidewalk counseling,' which involves offering information about alternatives to abortion and help pursuing those options." Further, the Court articulated other less restrictive means available to Massachusetts, including targeted injunctions, and found that the record did not support the need for Massachusetts' sweeping approach. As the Court concluded:
Petitioners wish to converse with their fellow citizens about an important subject on the public streets and sidewalks—sites that have hosted discussions about the issues of the day throughout history. Respondents assert undeniably significant interests in maintaining public safety on those same streets and sidewalks, as well as in preserving access to adjacent healthcare facilities. But here the Commonwealth has pursued those interests by the extreme step of closing a substantial portion of a tradi tional public forum to all speakers. It has done so without seriously addressing the problem through alternatives that leave the forum open for its time-honored purposes. The Commonwealth may not do that consistent with the First Amendment.
Justice Scalia's concurring opinion, joined by Justices Kennedy and Thomas, criticizes the Court's opinion as one
that has Something for Everyone, and the more significant portion continues the onward march of abortion-speech-only jurisprudence. That is the first half of the Court’s analysis, which concludes that a statute of this sort is not content based and hence not subject to so-called strict scrutiny. The Court reaches out to decide that question unnecessarily—or at least unnecessarily insofar as legal analysis is concerned.
Justice Alito, wrote separately but briefly to express his belief that the statute discriminates on the basis of viewpoint.
The takeaway is this: In a unanimous opinion, the Court ruled that Massachusetts went too far in seeking to protect the reproductive rights of women seeking abortions and infringed the First Amendment rights of those who seek to counsel them to change their minds. The Court's opinion approves more narrow methods governments might use to protect the reproductive rights of women entering clincs. But four Justices seem inclined to find a violation of the First Amendment in even more narrow government attempts.