NLC Joins Public Safety Buffer Zone Case

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Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.

It looks like an abortion case…but it really isn’t.  It just happens to have come up in the abortion clinic context.   It’s actually a speech case; a time, place, and manner case.  And local governments use speech buffer zones all the time in many contexts.  So a lot could be a stake in this case.

The Supreme Court will decide in McCullen v. Coakley whether a Massachusetts statute prohibiting speech within 35-feet of a reproductive health care facility violates the First Amendment.  The State and Local Legal Center (SLLC) filed an amicus brief in this case, which NLC signed onto.

Massachusetts law initially allowed protesters to come within six feet of those entering a clinic, within an 18-foot buffer zone around the clinic.  Protesters would crowd six feet from a clinic door, making entry into the clinic difficult and intimidating.  In 2007, Massachusetts adopted a 35-foot fixed buffer zone around clinics.  The First Circuit held that this statute is a constitutional time, place, and manner regulation of speech because numerous communication channels remain available to protesters.

The SLLC’s brief points out that how the Court rules in this case could affect state and local government’s ability to regulate speech to protect public safety in many contexts.  For example, lower courts have upheld buffer zones to prevent congestion at special events and places that regularly draw crowds (funerals, for instance).  These buffer zones and many others may be in jeopardy if the Court rules against Massachusetts.

The National Association of Counties, the United States Conference of Mayors, the International City/County Management Association, and the International Municipal Lawyers Association also joined this brief.

Oral argument has been scheduled for January 15.  The Supreme Court will issue an opinion in this case by June 30, 2014.