Global Freedom of Expression

McCullen v. Coakley

Closed Expands Expression

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Non-verbal Expression, Pamphlets / Posters / Banners, Public Speech
  • Date of Decision
    June 26, 2014
  • Outcome
    Decision - Procedural Outcome, Reversed and Remanded, Decision Outcome (Disposition/Ruling), Law or Action Overturned or Deemed Unconstitutional
  • Case Number
    134 S. Ct. 2518
  • Region & Country
    United States, North America
  • Judicial Body
    Supreme (court of final appeal)
  • Type of Law
    Constitutional Law
  • Themes
    Freedom of Association and Assembly / Protests
  • Tags
    Content-Based Restriction, Viewpoint Discrimination, Public Interest

Content Attribution Policy

Global Freedom of Expression is an academic initiative and therefore, we encourage you to share and republish excerpts of our content so long as they are not used for commercial purposes and you respect the following policy:

  • Attribute Columbia Global Freedom of Expression as the source.
  • Link to the original URL of the specific case analysis, publication, update, blog or landing page of the down loadable content you are referencing.

Attribution, copyright, and license information for media used by Global Freedom of Expression is available on our Credits page.

Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that a Massachusetts statute establishing 35 foot buffer zones around the entrance of abortion clinics violated the First Amendment because the restriction was overly broad. The Petitioners, who provided information to people entering clinics on the available alternative to abortion, challenged the statute on the basis that it violated their rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The Court reasoned that the statute was not content-based because a violation depended on where the speech was made, not what it said; nor was it viewpoint-discriminatory because exempting employees was not tantamount to authorizing them to speak about abortion. However, it held that the statute was not narrowly tailored because the State could have used less intrusive means to promote its legitimate interest in protecting public safety.


This case involves a challenge to a Massachusetts statute which prohibited knowingly standing within 35 feet of an entrance to a facility where abortions were performed. This was an amendment to an earlier statute that had established a six-foot ‘no approach’ zone. The Petitioners included individuals engaged in “sidewalk counseling”, providing information to people entering the facilities on the options to an abortion.

The Petitioners brought suit challenging the statute, alleging that it violated their rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, both facially and as it applied to them. The District Court denied both challenges and said that the ‘as applied’ challenge was insufficient because as it “left petitioners ample alternative channels of communication.” The Court of Appeals affirmed and, with regard to the Petitioners’ facial challenge, said that the Act was a reasonable “time, place, and manner” regulation under the test set out in Ward v. Rock Against Racism.

The Petitioners appealed to the Supreme Court.

Decision Overview

Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the Court reversing the Court of Appeals and remanding the case for further proceedings consistent with its opinion.

The Court noted that the place restricted by the statute, public sidewalks, is one of the traditional public fora contemplated by the protections in the First Amendment. Therefore, it said, the government was very limited in the type of speech it may restrict and, to pass scrutiny, the restriction must be a reasonable ‘time, place, and manner’ restriction that is narrowly tailored.

Petitioners argued that the act was not content-neutral because it only applied to clinics that performed abortions and, by exempting clinic employees and agents, favored one viewpoint about abortion over others, it was not viewpoint-neutral. The Court disagreed, finding that the state has a legitimate interest in safety and public access on sidewalks and there is no inference that the legislature tried to single out speech about abortion in enacting this statute. Further, the Court found insufficient evidence of employees being authorized to speak about abortion inside the buffer zones so that the exemptions in the statute did not serve to make it viewpoint-discriminatory. The Court said that the State had a legitimate reason for exempting those acting within the scope of their employment from the requirements of the Act.

Having found the Act neither content- nor viewpoint-based, the Court said it did not need not be analyzed under strict scrutiny.  However, even though the Court found the Act to be content-neutral, it still had to decide whether it was “narrowly tailored to serve a significant state interest”, specifically, to survive scrutiny, the Act may not “burden substantially more speech than is necessary to further the government’s legitimate interest.” The Court said that, although the government’s interest was in promoting public safety, the buffer zones burdened substantially more speech than was necessary to achieve that interest. It said that the State could have adopted less intrusive tools to prohibit physical violence, obstructing, or harassing.

Justice Scalia (joined by Justice Kennedy and Thomas) filed a concurring opinion holding that it was unnecessary dicta for the court to decide whether the statute was content-based as the Court found that the statute was not narrowly tailored, and therefore failed under the First Amendment regardless of whether it was content-based or not.

Justice Alito filed a concurring opinion, but would have found that the statute was not viewpoint-neutral as it implicitly discriminates by disfavoring speech that criticizes the clinic.


Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Expands Expression

The case expands expression by finding the Act was not narrowly tailored because a blanket restriction on standing within 35 feet of an abortion clinic restricts more speech than is necessary to accomplish the government’s goals. The Court’s decision is at variance with an earlier case on broadly similar facts in Hill v. Colorado, where it found that a statute prohibiting leafleting or protesting within 100 feet of an abortion clinic was an appropriate time, place, and manner restriction on speech. In fact, in his separate concurring opinion in the present case, Scalia J. went so far as to say that the Court had effectively overruled Hill  and that the “implication of that holding is that protection against unwelcome speech cannot justify restrictions on the use of public streets and sidewalks”.

Global Perspective

Quick Info

Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

National standards, law or jurisprudence

  • U.S., Mass. Gen. Laws, ch. 266, §§ 120E½(a), (b)
  • U.S., Const. amend. I
  • U.S., Const. amend. XIV
  • U.S., Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U.S. 781 (1989)
  • U.S., United States v. Grace, 461 U.S. 171 (1983)
  • U.S., Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, 555 U.S. 460 (2009)
  • U.S., Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, 561 U.S. 1 (2010)
  • U.S., Renton v. Playtime Theatres, Inc., 475 U.S. 41 (1986)
  • U.S., Boos v. Barry, 485 U.S. 312 (1988)
  • U.S., Burson v. Freeman, 504 U.S. 191 (1992)
  • U.S., City of Ladue v. Gilleo, 512 U.S. 43 (1994)
  • U.S., Schenck v. Pro-Choice Network of Western N.Y., 519 U.S. 357 (1997)
  • U.S., Hill v. Colorado, 530 U.S. 703 (2000)
  • U.S., McGuire v. Reilly, 386 F.3d 45 (1st Cir. 2004)
  • U.S., Perry Educ. Ass’n v. Perry Local Educators’ Ass’n, 460 U.S. 37 (1983)
  • U.S., FCC v. League of Women Voters, 468 U.S. 364 (1984)
  • U.S., Police Dept. of Chicago v. Mosley, 408 U.S. 92 (1972)
  • U.S., Erznoznik v. City of Jacksonville, 422 U.S. 205 (1975)
  • U.S., Clark v. Cmty. for Creative Non-Violence, 468 U.S. 288 (1984)
  • U.S., United States v. Playboy Entm't Grp., 529 U.S. 803 (2000)
  • U.S., Bartnicki v. Vopper, 532 U.S. 514 (2001)
  • U.S., McCutcheon v. FEC, 134 S. Ct. 1434 (2014)
  • U.S., Carey v. Brown, 447 U.S. 455 (1980)
  • U.S., United States v. O’Brien, 391 U.S. 367 (1968)
  • U.S., Virginia State Board of Pharmacy v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, 425 U.S. 748 (1976)
  • U.S., Burson v. Freeman, 504 U.S. 191 (1992)
  • U.S., Rosenberger v. Rector & Visitors of Univ. of Va., 515 U.S. 819 (1995)
  • U.S., First Nat. Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765 (1978)
  • U.S., Hoye v. City of Oakland, 653 F.3d 835 (9th Cir.2011)
  • U.S., Vill. of Hoffman Estates v. Flipside, Hoffman Estates, Inc., 455 U.S. 489 (1982)
  • U.S., Riley v. National Federation of the Blind of N.C., Inc., 487 U.S. 781 (1988)
  • U.S., Madsen v. Women's Health Ctr., Inc., 512 U.S. 753 (1994)
  • U.S., Meyer v. Grant, 486 U.S. 414 (1988)
  • U.S., McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Comm'n, 514 U.S. 334 (1995)
  • U.S., Finzer v. Barry, 798 F.2d 1450 (C.A.D.C. 1986)
  • U.S., Planned Parenthood of Mass., Inc. v. Bell, 424 Mass. 573 (1997)
  • U.S., Planned Parenthood of Mass., Inc. v. Operation Rescue, 406 Mass. 701 (1990)
  • U.S., Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976)
  • U.S., Young v. American Mini Theatres, Inc., 427 U.S. 50 (1976)
  • U.S., Thomas v. Chicago Park District, 534 U.S. 316 (2002)
  • U.S., R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, 505 U.S. 377 (1992)
  • U.S., Standard Oil Co. of N.J. v. United States, 221 U.S. 1 (1911)
  • U.S., Turner Broadcasting Sys. Inc. v. FCC, 512 U.S. 622 (1994)

Case Significance

Quick Info

Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

The decision establishes a binding or persuasive precedent within its jurisdiction.

As a decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, this binds all lower courts.

The decision was cited in:

Official Case Documents

Official Case Documents:

Have comments?

Let us know if you notice errors or if the case analysis needs revision.

Send Feedback