McCullen v. Coakley
573 U.S. ___ (2014)

Annotate this Case

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

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No. 12–1168

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ELEANOR McCULLEN, et al., PETITIONERS v. MARTHA COAKLEY, ATTORNEY GEN-ERAL of MASSACHUSETTS, et al.

on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the first circuit

[June 26, 2014]

     Justice Alito, concurring in the judgment.

     I agree that the Massachusetts statute at issue in this case, Mass. Gen. Laws, ch. 266, §120E½(b) (West 2012), violates the First Amendment. As the Court recognizes, if the Massachusetts law discriminates on the basis of viewpoint, it is unconstitutional, see ante, at 10, and I believe the law clearly discriminates on this ground.

     The Massachusetts statute generally prohibits any person from entering a buffer zone around an abortion clinic during the clinic’s business hours, §120E½(c), but the law contains an exemption for “employees or agents of such facility acting within the scope of their employment.” §120E½(b)(2). Thus, during business hours, individuals who wish to counsel against abortion or to criticize the particular clinic may not do so within the buffer zone. If they engage in such conduct, they commit a crime. See §120E½(d). By contrast, employees and agents of the clinic may enter the zone and engage in any conduct that falls within the scope of their employment. A clinic may direct or authorize an employee or agent, while within the zone, to express favorable views about abortion or the clinic, and if the employee exercises that authority, the employee’s conduct is perfectly lawful. In short, petitioners and other critics of a clinic are silenced, while the clinic may authorize its employees to express speech in support of the clinic and its work.

     Consider this entirely realistic situation. A woman enters a buffer zone and heads haltingly toward the entrance. A sidewalk counselor, such as petitioners, enters the buffer zone, approaches the woman and says, “If you have doubts about an abortion, let me try to answer any questions you may have. The clinic will not give you good information.” At the same time, a clinic employee, as instructed by the management, approaches the same woman and says, “Come inside and we will give you honest answers to all your questions.” The sidewalk counselor and the clinic employee expressed opposing viewpoints, but only the first violated the statute.

     Or suppose that the issue is not abortion but the safety of a particular facility. Suppose that there was a recent report of a botched abortion at the clinic. A nonemployee may not enter the buffer zone to warn about the clinic’s health record, but an employee may enter and tell prospective clients that the clinic is safe.

     It is clear on the face of the Massachusetts law that it discriminates based on viewpoint. 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.

     The Court holds not only that the Massachusetts law is viewpoint neutral but also that it does not discriminate based on content. See ante, at 11–15. The Court treats the Massachusetts law like one that bans all speechwithin the buffer zone. While such a law would be content neutral on its face, there are circumstances in which a law forbidding all speech at a particular location would not be content neutral in fact. Suppose, for example, that a facially content-neutral law is enacted for the purpose of suppressing speech on a particular topic. Such a law would not be content neutral. See, e.g., Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. v. FCC, 512 U. S. 622 –646 (1994).

     In this case, I do not think that it is possible to reach a judgment about the intent of the Massachusetts Legislature without taking into account the fact that the law that the legislature enacted blatantly discriminates based on viewpoint. In light of this feature, as well as the overbreadth that the Court identifies, see ante, at 23–27, it cannot be said, based on the present record, that the law would be content neutral even if the exemption for clinic employees and agents were excised. However, if the law were truly content neutral, I would agree with the Court that the law would still be unconstitutional on the ground that it burdens more speech than is necessary to serve the Commonwealth’s asserted interests.

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