Supreme Court Takes Sidewalk Counseling Case

This week, attention is focused on the Justices of the Supreme Court as they release their last decisions before summer break. While much of the hullabaloo centers on this term’s blockbuster cases involving affirmative action, the Voting Rights Act, and same-sex marriage, the Court also announced that it would hear a particularly important case next term.

In Massachusetts, as in many places, pro-lifers offer sidewalk counseling outside abortion clinics to pregnant mothers who are considering, or are scheduled for, abortion. Very often, these women are uncertain and scared; tragically, many feel as if they have no other choice but abortion. The enormous abortion industry, realizing the potential for big money and determined to perform as many abortions as possible, looks to take advantage of these vulnerable women. It is for this reason that the work of pro-life sidewalk counselors is so important. In fact, countless lives have been saved because of the dedication of those who offer help and resources to pregnant women outside abortion clinics.

Unfortunately, Massachusetts has enacted a law that prohibits anyone from standing within thirty-five feet of an abortion clinic’s entrance, exit, or driveway. Of course, it contains an exemption for abortionists and clinic employees on their way to work. But the law’s main effect is to suppress the free speech of sidewalk counselors, and to create a zone where only abortion-supporting speech is welcome.

Well, that may change. The Supreme Court has agreed to consider a challenge to the Massachusetts law on the grounds that it unconstitutionally infringes on the First Amendment free speech rights of those wishing to speak to abortion-minded women for the purposes of offering and discussing alternatives to abortion.

It seems that this law creates a “content-based restriction” on free speech, which, to the Supreme Court, has always been a big no-no. In a 2000 case, Hill v. Colorado, the Court upheld, 6-3, a Colorado law that similarly restricted pro-lifers’ free speech. However, the pro-life petitioners here argue that the Massachusetts law is different because it “applies only at abortion clinics” and it allows pro-abortion speech but not pro-life speech, thus creating a buffer zone where “disfavored speakers” are completely excluded. Perhaps it would be different if the law mandated a zone of silence where neither side could speak; but the law instead gives government preference to one type of speech over an opposing type of speech. We shall see whether the Court agrees that free speech includes sidewalk counseling.

Also worth noting: the makeup of the Court has changed since 2000. But all three dissenters in Hill remain on the bench.

The case is McCullen v. Coakley, 12-1168.

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