Thursday, June 26, 2014

Supreme Court Strikes Down Massachusetts Abortion-Clinic Buffer Zone Law

The U.S. Supreme Court today in McCullen v. Coakley, (S.Ct., June 26, 2014) struck down the Massachusetts statute that creates a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics. The law prevents anti-abortion sidewalk counselors from entering the buffer zone.  The Court's majority decision written by Chief Justice Roberts struck down the law on narrow free speech grounds. While the state has a legitimate interest in preserving access to clinics, and while this is a neutral statute, it burdens more speech that in necessary to accomplish that purpose.  The Chief Justice explains:
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 tradi­tional 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 opinion, joined by Justices Kennedy and Thomas, concurring only in the judgment, criticizes the majority's approach:
Today’s opinion carries forward this Court’s practice of giving abortion-rights advocates a pass when it comes to suppressing the free-speech rights of their opponents. There is an entirely separate, abridged edition of the First Amendment applicable to speech against abortion.... The ... Court’s analysis today, invalidat­ing the law at issue because of inadequate “tailoring,” is certainly attractive to those of us who oppose an abortion­ speech edition of the First Amendment. But think again. This is an opinion that ... continues the onward march of abortion-speech-only jurisprudence. 
Justice Alito also wrote a separate opinion concurring only in the judgment. The New York Times reports on the decision.