Today, the Supreme Court ruled “buffer zones” around abortion clinics are unconstitutional. The unanimous decision prohibits states and localities from banning crisis pregnancy counselors from offering help to hurting women entering an abortion clinic. The court overturned the Massachusetts district court and the First Circuit Court of Appeals, which found that the law did not violate the First Amendment.
McCullen v. Coakley brought together pro-life and pro-abortion justices. Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr. wrote, “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 Court unanimously recognized that speakers have the right to choose the most effective means for informing women about alternatives to abortion. The sidewalk counselors “believe that they can accomplish [their] objective only through personal, caring, consensual conversations. And for good reason: It is easier to ignore a strained voice or a waving hand than a direct greeting or an outstretched hand.” Because of that, “[i]t is thus no answer to say that [the counselors] can still be seen and heard by women in the buffer zones. If all that the women can see and hear are vociferous opponents of abortion, then the buffer zones have effectively stifled [the counselor’s] message.”
Justice Samuel Alito said the decision is not just about freedom of speech, but also viewpoint discrimination: “It is clear on the face of the Massachusetts law that it discriminates based on viewpoint,” Justice Alito wrote. “Speech in favor of the clinic and its work by employees and agents is permitted; speech criticizing the clinic and its work is a crime. This is blatant viewpoint discrimination.”
In Liberty Counsel’s amicus brief, Mat Staver, Founder and Chairman, told the High Court, “The continual secularization and anti-life agenda of our government is responsible for this double standard at abortion facilities. Determined to continue the assault on women and the preborn, the state of Massachusetts will not even allow a woman in a crisis pregnancy to receive sidewalk counseling at a time in her life when such counseling is vital to her future and that of her unborn baby.”
Liberty Counsel is fighting a similar case involving viewpoint discrimination. In Pine v. West Palm Beach the city has banned all “shouting” and amplified sound within 100 feet of “health care facilities” in West Palm Beach, Florida, regardless of the volume used or if the sound causes any disturbance. Today’s decision makes it clear that government may not impose substantial burdens on speech on a public sidewalk that are not narrowly tailored to legitimate government interests.
“This is a great day for liberty and life,” said Horatio Mihet, Vice President of Legal Affairs and Chief Litigation Counsel for Liberty Counsel. “Crisis pregnancy counselors are heroes. Dedicated to defending the preborn and helping women, they spend their lives standing on sidewalks offering help to women who are alone and afraid. This decision affirms the life-saving work of those counselors, and the women and children they support.”
Liberty Counsel is an international nonprofit, litigation, education, and policy organization dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and the family since 1989, by providing pro bono assistance and representation on these and related topics.