DFLA Applauds Supreme Court Decision to Protect Free Speech for Peaceful Sidewalk Counselors

on Posted in Press Releases.

For Immediate Release

June 27, 2014

Contact: Kristen Day: 202-220-3066

Washington, DC – Democrats for Life of America (DFLA) applauds the Supreme Court's unanimous decision yesterday holding that Massachusetts violated the First Amendment rights of pro-life sidewalk counselors by excluding speech from a 35-foot "buffer zone" around abortion clinic driveways and clinics.

"We are gratified that the Supreme Court has explicitly recognized the compassionate message that sidewalk counselors seek to convey and that it can have an effect on women's considered choices," said DFLA executive director Kristen Day.  "The Court correctly recognized how grossly overbroad this 'no pro-life speech' zone was."

The state law, enacted in 2007, was challenged by Eleanor McCullen and other pro-life counselors who sought to engage women entering abortion clinics in quiet, personal conversation and offer them information and help concerning financial support, adoption, and other alternatives to abortion.  The majority of the Court held that the state law unconstitutional because it "burden[s] substantially more speech than necessary" to accomplish the state's asserted goals of protecting public safety and preventing harassment or obstruction of women entering clinics.

The majority opinion noted that McCullen, like other sidewalk counselors, sought to engage women with "a caring demeanor, a calm tone of voice, and direct eye contact" but that the 35-foot zone "often reduced her to raising her voice at patients from outside the zone—a mode of communica­tion sharply at odds with the compassionate message she wishes to convey."  As the Court explained, "It is easier to ignore a strained voice or a waving hand than a direct greeting or an outstretched arm....  If all that the women can see and hear are vociferous opponents of abortion, then the buffer zones have effectively stifled petitioners’ message."

“The majority also noted ‘unrefuted evidence’ that the plaintiffs' compassionate efforts ‘have collectively persuaded hundreds of women to forgo abortions’ ”, said Day.  “And the majority found that the state had plenty of other legal options to prevent obstruction or harassment without preventing peaceful conversations on a public sidewalk.”

Democrats for Life of America had emphasized these very points in an amicus brief submitted to the Court together with the pro-life group Clergy for Better Choices. The brief argued that "t[h]e manner of [the sidewalk counselors'] speech is crucial to their message of caring assistance. They should not be forced into a different mold—in many ways, a stereotyped mold—of a shouting protester." The DFLA brief also showed, based on "well-reputed academic studies," that—"given the variety of reasons leading women to have abortions—many women would willingly discuss pregnancy options" with sidewalk counselors and would benefit from the practical information and assistance concerning abortion alternatives.

The brief of DFLA and Clergy for Better Choices was written by Tom Berg, DFLA board member and law professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law (Minnesota).