McCullen v. Coakley

Following is the case brief for McCullen v. Coakley, 134 S. Ct. 2518 (2014)

Case Summary of McCullen v. Coakley:

  • Massachusetts law made it a crime to stand within 35 feet of an abortion clinic, unless you were an employee.
  • Petitioners are people who approach women outside clinics, trying to dissuade them from having abortions.  The law prevents them from doing so near the clinic entrance.
  • Petitioners sued to enjoin enforcement of the law.
  • The District Court and the First Circuit denied petitioners relief.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court, reversed and remanded.  It held that 35-foot buffer zone violates the First Amendment because it is not narrowly tailored enough, and therefore burdens more speech than necessary to achieve the goals of the law.

McCullen v. Coakley Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

Massachusetts amended its law regarding reproductive health care facilities to address the problem of clashes between abortion opponents and abortion advocates outside abortion clinics.  The law made it a crime to knowingly stand on a public sidewalk within 35 feet of an entrance or driveway to any abortion clinic.  Those employees of the clinic acting within the scope of their employment were exempted from the law.

Petitioners, including McCullen, are people who attempt to engage women in “sidewalk counseling” as the women are entering abortion clinics.  The “counseling” generally involves giving information about abortion alternatives.  Petitioners sued to enjoin enforcement of the law, claiming that it violated their First Amendment rights.

Procedural History:

  • The District Court denied petitioner’s First Amendment claims.
  • The First Circuit affirmed, finding that the law was a reasonable “time, place, and manner” regulation.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Does a law barring any person from standing on a public sidewalk within 35 feet of an abortion clinic violate the First Amendment?  Yes.


The decision of the First Circuit Court of Appeals is reversed and remanded.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

A law violates the First Amendment when it burdens more speech than is necessary to achieve the asserted reason for the law.


As a threshold matter, the law does not need to be analyzed under strict scrutiny because it does not restrict certain content or one viewpoint.  That said, the law is not narrowly tailored because it burdens more speech than is than is necessary to achieve the government’s ends.  Part of the petitioners’ message is to have close conversations with women about abortion alternatives.  The buffer zones do not allow for that type of communication.  Because Massachusetts has not shown that strategies less intrusive than buffer zones do not work, the buffer zone burdens more speech than necessary.  Further, there are already other ways in which to stop people from blocking access to an abortion clinic.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (Scalia):

The Court’s opinion shows hostility towards the speech of abortion opponents.  Further, the Court’s discussion about the law being content-neutral is unnecessary.  The law is actually content-specific.  The law should have been subjected to strict scrutiny as a content-based restriction, and found to be unconstitutional on that analysis.

Concurring Opinion (Alito):

The law is viewpoint specific because it pushes anti-abortion speech outside of the buffer zone, but allows employees – who are likely abortion advocates – within the buffer zone.


McCullen v. Coakley is an important case because it discusses the significant problem around abortion clinics, in which abortion opponents stand outside clinics attempting to persuade women entering the clinic to change their minds about getting an abortion.  The scene is fraught with emotion and people attempting to impose their will on others.  Massachusetts’ law was an attempt to avoid those types of scenes, yet the Court determined unanimously that a buffer zone violates the First Amendment.

Student Resources:

Read the Full Court Opinion

Listen to the Oral Arguments