First Amendment in Mass.: Aggressive Panhandling and Buffer Zones

By Gabriella Khorasanee, JD on June 30, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

This week we examine a duo of First Amendment cases. The first garnered national media attention last week as the Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts "buffer zone" law. The other case, though less widely known, also addresses the First Amendment.

Read on to learn more about the opinions.

McCullen v. Coakley -- First Circuit

This case has been in the justice system for thirteen years, and involves a Massachusetts law providing for a 35-foot buffer zone around exits, entrances and driveways of reproductive health care facilities, with certain exemptions. The First Circuit upheld the law, stating, "The Massachusetts statute at issue here is a content-neutral, narrowly tailored time-place-manner regulation that protects the rights of prospective patients and clinic employees without offending the First Amendment rights of others."

McCullen v. Coakley -- Supreme Court

Well, the Supreme Court, apparently did not agree, when last Thursday, it released its opinion overturning the Massachusetts law. Though the Court found the law content-neutral, it also found that the law was not narrowly tailored enough, in that the "buffer zones burden substantially more speech than necessary to achieve the Commonwealth's asserted inter­ests."

Justice Scalia wrote an opinion in which he concurred in the judgment, but noted "an entirely separate, abridged edition of the First Amendment applicable to speech against abortion." He added that, "Today's opinion carries forward this Court's practice of giving abortion-rights advocates a pass when it comes to suppressing the free-speech rights of their opponents."

Though the case only applies to the Massachusetts law, there's no doubt that pro-life advocates will be re-examining similar laws throughout the country.

Aggressive Panhandling

Meanwhile, exactly one week before the McCullen decision was issued, the First Circuit found another law -- this one a city ordinance that prohibits "aggressive panhandling" -- did not run afoul of the First Amendment. Retired Supreme Court Justice Souter, sitting by designation on the First Circuit panel, wrote the opinion, and found that the ordinances were content-neural, and "not suppressing certain kinds of messages but regulating their delivery."

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