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McCullen v. Coakley

Citation. 573 U.S. __, 134 S.Ct. 2518, 189 L.Ed.2d 502 (2014).
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Citation. 573 U.S. __, 134 S.Ct. 2518, 189 L.Ed.2d 502 (2014).

Brief Fact Summary.

Plaintiffs challenged a Massachusetts law which created a barrier zone between abortion rights activists and opponents, arguing the law violated their First Amendment rights.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

A content neutral law must be narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest. For a content neutral time, place, or manner regulation to be narrowly tailored, it must not burden more speech than is necessary to further the government’s legitimate interests.


Individuals, including Plaintiffs, were approaching and talking to women outside abortion facilities, attempting to dissuade them from having abortions. Massachusetts passed a law designed to address clashes between abortion opponents and advocates that were occurring outside clinics where the abortions were performed. The law created a buffer zone, which applied only during business hours and had to be clearly marked and posted. Plaintiffs challenged the law, arguing it violated their First Amendment rights.


Whether the Massachusetts law, which created buffer zones at abortion clinics, violates the First Amendment.


Yes. The Massachusetts law, which created buffer zones at abortion clinics, violates the First Amendment.


Justice Scalia

This statute should be evaluated under strict scrutiny because it is content-based legislation. The stated goal of public safety is achieved by an earlier-enacted subsection of the statute. The part at issue is obviously designed to achieve the suppression of speech opposing abortion. The obvious purpose is to protect prospective clients of abortion clinics from having to hear abortion-opposing speech on public street and sidwalks.

Justice Alito

The law discriminates on the basis of viewpoint. Speech in favor of the clinic and its work by employees is permitted. Speech criticizing the clinic and its work is a clime.


First, we agree with Defendant this is a content neutral law. Obstructed access and congested sidewalks are problems no matter what causes them. A group of individuals can obstruct clinic access and clog sidewalks just as much as when they loiter to protest. As such, it need not be analyzed under strict scrutiny.

The law fails, however, because it is not narrowly tailored. The only justification the government has provided is that “we have tried other approaches, but they do not work.” As such, the state has failed to demonstrate that alternative measures that burden substantially less speech would fail to achieve the government’s interest.

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