Rebuffing the Buffer Zones

In McCullen v. Coakley, the Supreme Court should uphold free speech

On Jan. 15, the Supreme Court heard arguments in McCullen v. Coakley. At issue is a Massachusetts law establishing a 35-foot “buffer zone” around abortion clinics, which protesters may not legally enter. While we support Massachusetts in its attempt to ensure women’s right to seek information or services from abortion clinics, we believe the law is overbearing in its scope, unduly violating the freedom of speech.

The 35-foot buffer zone law currently in place was enacted in Nov. 2007, and draws support from precedent that has upheld buffer zones of up to 150 feet around polling places and eight feet around abortion clinics. The law is a direct response to the horrific shooting at an abortion clinic near Boston in 1994. This case presents an opportunity to have lasting reverberations not only for the fate of the constitutionally guaranteed rights of free speech and unrestricted access to abortion facilities but also for Martha M. Coakley's 2014 gubernatorial campaign.

Women ought to have unfettered access to the support and facilities that organizations like Planned Parenthood offer. However, a 35-foot dead space which allows for clinic employees to speak to potential entrants about the clinic, yet disallows protesters to non-violently express their views, disproportionately limits one party's First Amendment rights.

Benjamin Franklin once said that no amount of liberty should ever be sacrificed in order to “purchase a little temporary safety.” In this case, we should heed his advice, especially when the potential threat to security is a peaceful, 77-year-old lady like Eleanor McCullen.


But there is also potential for compromise in this case, and a smaller buffer zone seems indispensible. We do not doubt that if no such zone existed, then the freedom of movement for women attempting to access the clinic would be affected, yet 35 feet is clearly too large a barrier. The eight-foot zone upheld in Hill v. Colorado may well be the optimal size.

Specificities ought to be hashed out by the court, but we urge them to err on the side of the freedom of speech. While understandable in motive, the Massachusetts law does far too much in abridging that right, and should be struck down.


Recommended Articles