American Journal of Law & Medicine

Broken Buffers and Fragile Bubbles-McCullen V. Coakley

Broken Buffers and Fragile Bubbles--McCullen v. Coakley (1)--On June 26, 2014, the Supreme Court held that a Massachusetts law prohibiting any person from "knowingly entering] or remaining] on a public way or sidewalk adjacent to a reproductive health care facility within a radius of 35 feet of any portion of an entrance, exit or driveway of a reproductive healthcare facility" (2) violated the First Amendment. (3) While recognizing the government's legitimate interest in protecting public safety, the Court was adamant that burdens on "normal conversation" (4) do not satisfy the narrow tailoring requirement for exceptions to free expression. (5)

The law in question was a 2007 amendment to the Massachusetts Reproductive Health Care Facilities Act. The original version of the Act provided for an eighteen-foot buffer zone around entrances and driveways of reproductive healthcare facilities and prohibited anyone from coming within six feet of another person in that zone without that person's consent. (6) The 2007 amendment replaced the bubble zones with a blanket thirty-five-foot buffer zone. (7) Both the 2000 Reproductive Health Care Facilities Act and 2007 amendment included exceptions for "(1) persons entering or leaving such facility; (2) employees or agents of such facility acting within the scope of their employment; (3) law enforcement, ambulance, firefighting, construction, utilities, public works and other municipal agents acting within the scope of their employment; and (4) persons using the public sidewalk or street right-of-way adjacent to such facility solely for the purpose of reaching a destination other than such facility." (8) Additionally, both versions prohibited people from knowingly obstructing the entrance of a reproductive health care facility. (9)

The Supreme Court's decision in McCullen reversed a prior United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit decision that upheld the 2007 amendment. (10) The First Circuit's holding in favor of the amended act was largely based on its prior decisions denying challenges to the original version of the Reproductive Health Care Facilities Act, as well as the Supreme Court's approval of a similar Colorado statute in Hill v. …

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