AG Coakley Statement on Supreme Court Decision Regarding Massachusetts Buffer Zone Law
BOSTON – Attorney General Martha Coakley issued the following statement today in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision reversing a lower court ruling in McCullen v. Coakley, and holding that the Massachusetts buffer zone law is unconstitutional:
“With today’s decision, our work begins again. We are not going to give up our fight to make sure women have safe access to reproductive health care. We will utilize all of the tools we have available to protect everyone from harassment, threats, and physical obstruction. I will work with the Governor, Legislature and advocates to explore additional legislative tools that also meet the court’s requirements.”
In 2000, the state passed its first buffer zone law, an 18-foot floating buffer that required individuals to consent to approaches by others within the zone. The old law, however, failed to prevent protestors from blocking entrances and intimidating patients.
In May 2007, AG Coakley testified in support of the passage of new legislation. The new law, which was signed by Governor Deval Patrick and subsequently took effect on Nov. 13, 2007, prohibited any person from knowingly entering or remaining within public ways and sidewalks inside the 35-foot buffer zone. The buffer zone was in effect only during the clinic’s business hours and only if the buffer zone is clearly marked and posted. This new law had been proven an effective tool in allowing access while providing ample opportunity for protesters, including the individuals who challenged the law, to communicate their message.
The revised law was the subject of litigation from the time it was enacted. In January 2008, five plaintiffs challenged the constitutionality of the law, alleging that the law violated their right to free speech.
In August 2008, U.S. District Judge Joseph Tauro rejected the plaintiffs’ claims. Plaintiffs then appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. In July 2009, the First Circuit upheld the federal district court’s decision that the buffer zone statute was a constitutional means to protect public safety and patient access to such clinics, and did not violate the First Amendment.
However, the case was sent back to district court to address how the law was being applied in specific circumstances. In February 2012, Judge Tauro again rejected the plaintiffs’ claims that the statute, as it applied to their activities at the Planned Parenthood clinics in Boston, Worcester and Springfield, violated their constitutional right to free speech.
The court held that the buffer zone, as applied at these locations, left open ample alternative channels of communication and thus was a valid regulation of the time, place, and manner of the plaintiffs’ speech. In January 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld the lower court’s ruling.
In June 2013, the U.S Supreme Court granted the plaintiffs’ petition for certiorari and agreed to hear the case. In November, the AG’s office filed a brief with the court, arguing that the 35-foot buffer zone law was a content- neutral and narrowly-tailored law that did not target any particular message. The brief argued that the law served significant government interests in protecting public safety and safe access to reproductive health clinics while preserving ample opportunities for communication outside clinics. As part of its Supreme Court brief, the AG’s office described the more than 20-year history of conflict outside clinics and the evolution of the buffer zone law in Massachusetts.
On January 15, 2014, the Court heard arguments from Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Grace Miller, chief of AG Coakley’s Government Bureau. Today, the U.S Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s ruling, and held that the current 35-foot buffer zone is unconstitutional. As a result, AG Coakley has vowed to begin working immediately with all stakeholders, including the facilities and local law enforcement, to ensure access to reproductive health clinics free from harassment.