McCullen v. Coakley

573 U.S. 464 (2014)

Quick Summary

Eleanor McCullen (plaintiff) challenged a Massachusetts law that restricted speech near abortion clinics. The Supreme Court of the United States (court) took on the case McCullen v. Coakley. The dispute centered around whether this law violated McCullen’s First Amendment rights.

The Supreme Court concluded that the law was not narrowly tailored to serve significant governmental interests and thus imposed an unconstitutional burden on free speech. As a result, the law was struck down for infringing upon fundamental First Amendment protections.

Facts of the Case

Eleanor McCullen (plaintiff) engaged in conversations with women outside abortion clinics, offering information on alternatives to abortion. Her approach proved persuasive in dissuading women from proceeding with abortions.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts (defendant) enacted a law prohibiting individuals from occupying a 35-foot zone around clinic entrances, except for clinic staff and authorized persons. This legislation followed instances of hostility and violence outside clinics.

The zone’s implementation hindered McCullen’s ability to interact closely with clinic visitors, diminishing her counseling success. She challenged the law, claiming it violated her First Amendment rights. The district court ruled in favor of Massachusetts, which was affirmed by the appeals court, leading to the Supreme Court’s grant of certiorari.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. McCullen brought suit against Massachusetts alleging First Amendment violations.
  2. The district court ruled in favor of Massachusetts.
  3. The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed the lower court’s decision.
  4. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the case.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether the Massachusetts law creating a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics violates the First Amendment rights of individuals wishing to engage in consensual conversations and distribute literature on public sidewalks near clinic entrances.

Rule of Law

Government may impose reasonable restrictions on the time, place, or manner of protected speech in traditional public fora, provided the restrictions are content-neutral, narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest, and leave open ample alternative channels for communication.

Reasoning and Analysis

The Court determined that while the Massachusetts Act was content-neutral, it was not narrowly tailored as it burdened more speech than necessary to further the government’s legitimate interests in public safety and healthcare access. The Act significantly impeded personal, consensual conversations and literature distribution, traditional methods of communication protected by the First Amendment.

The Court found that other less intrusive tools, such as existing laws against obstruction and targeted police actions, could address the state’s concerns without restricting free speech as broadly as the buffer zones did. Consequently, the Act was deemed to violate the First Amendment because it limited speech in a way that was not sufficiently justified by the state’s interests.


The Supreme Court reversed the First Circuit’s decision, holding that the Massachusetts Act violated the First Amendment.

Key Takeaways

  1. The Supreme Court reaffirmed that traditional public fora are protected spaces for free speech under the First Amendment.
  2. Time, place, or manner restrictions on speech must be content-neutral, narrowly tailored, and leave open ample alternative channels for communication.
  3. Laws that broadly restrict speech in public areas must be scrutinized to ensure they do not unnecessarily impede free expression.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What are the criteria for a speech restriction to be considered narrowly tailored?

To deem a speech restriction narrowly tailored, it must not burden substantially more speech than required to achieve the government’s significant interests. It should be the least restrictive means to accomplish the state goal without impinging on more communication than necessary.

  • For example: A city ordinance that prohibits amplified sound in residential areas after 9 pm might be considered narrowly tailored to reduce noise pollution and avoid disturbing residents’ sleep, rather than a total ban on all outdoor sound amplification.

How does a court determine if a law is content-neutral in the context of regulating speech?

A law is considered content-neutral if it regulates speech without reference to the substance of the speech or the message being conveyed. The regulation must be justified without regard to the content of the regulated speech and applied equally to all.

  • For example: A city ordinance that requires permits for all parades, regardless of the parade’s purpose or message, would typically be seen as content-neutral because it applies uniformly and does not single out specific viewpoints or topics.

What are alternative channels of communication, and why are they significant in free speech cases?

Alternative channels of communication refer to different methods or opportunities for individuals to convey their message despite some form of speech restriction. Their availability is significant because a regulation that leaves open ample alternate means of communication is more likely to be upheld under First Amendment scrutiny.

  • For example: If a protest is restricted from occurring directly in front of a government building, an alternative channel may be permitting the protest on a nearby public square or park where visibility and public access are still viable.


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