Welcome to the Roundtable, a forum for incisive commentary and analysis
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
By Regina Salmons
Regina Salmons is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying English.
The ongoing debate over abortion has extended beyond hypothetical arguments into the real world. In McCullen v. Coakley, Eleanor McCullen and other pro-life protestors and self-proclaimed “counselors” petitioned against Attorney General Martha Coakley for the infringement of what they believed to be their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.  The petitioners argued that the required 35-foot buffer zones around women’s health clinics and abortion clinics designed to exclude these protestors infringed too heavily on their ability to provide “sidewalk counseling” to those entering the clinics. Additionally, they argued that “clinic escorts,” whose job it is to accompany patients seeking medical help through the buffer zones into the clinics, also prevented their right to free expression. Both the District Court and the First Circuit denied that the Act requiring the zones violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
The Supreme Court, meanwhile, ruled that the law did in fact violate the First Amendment because it limited free speech too broadly, as the sidewalks leading to the clinics are indeed public ground. Historically, politicians often used such sidewalks as platforms for free speech and campaigning, yet those forms of campaign were not usually violent or inflammatory. On the other hand, these protestors often block the entrances to the clinic, not allowing those seeking reproductive health services to enter the building. The response of the Court was that in those circumstances, which appeared to only occur on Saturdays, police officers could be called to disperse the crowds.
The 35-foot buffer was deemed too large, and it was argued that Massachusetts had not begun with smaller or less intrusive ways of ensuring access to the clinics. It was also argued that there was not a substantial amount of cases that produced evidence of needing the thirty-five-foot barrier.  However, walking through throngs of protestors to receive medical treatment or health services can hardly be seen as an easy task. Though these protestors are undoubtedly entitled to their freedom of speech, are they also entitled to free reign as to where they may practice that free speech? It would hardly be seen as culturally appropriate to disperse anti-religious pamphlets and “counseling” outside of a place of worship, and similarly egregious for people to be protesting at a funeral or a matrimonial celebration. We are constitutionally endowed to our right to pursue liberty and happiness, and so the question remains: where is the line drawn in the balance between our right to live our lives without harassment in our pursuit of life and the infringement of such freedom to speech personal viewpoints?
Though the decision in McCullen v. Coakley was announced in June 2014, the issues with which it dealt are still highly controversial and relevant almost two years later. This past November, a terrorist attack took place at a center run by Planned Parenthood, a non-profit organization that provides reproductive health services in the United States and abroad. Three civilians, including a police officer who was responding to the call, were killed after a radical Christian extremist opened fire at the clinic. Many others were injured in the gunfire and hospitalized as a result of a six-hour standoff between the gunman and the police.  The motive of the shooting was described by Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains president Vicki Cowart in an article by CNN as “motivated by opposition to safe and legal abortion."  These views mirror those of McCullen and other pro-life protestors, whose aim is to dissuade women from not receiving these services.
Americans pride themselves profusely on the constitutional right to freedom of speech. However, does this right to speak our minds exist infinitely without bounds or limitations? It is possible that there are areas where peoples’ right to free speech infringes too heavily on others’ rights to the pursuit of life and liberty, such as the right to receive medical treatment and health services without obstruction or harassment. Especially when the threat of violence and terrorism is so present in our current culture as a result of personal opinions on controversial topics such as this one, it is important to be considerate of the dangers of completely limitless free expression.
 McCullen v. Coakley, Attorney General of Massachusetts, No. 12-1168 slip op. at 1-6 (June 26, 2014) (Dist. file).
 Turkewitz, Julie, and Jack Healy. "3 Are Dead in Colorado Springs Shootout at Planned Parenthood Center." The New York Times. November 27, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/28/us/colorado-planned-parenthood-shooting.html?_r=0.
 "Source: Colorado Shooting Suspect Spoke of 'baby Parts' - CNN.com." CNN. Accessed January 23, 2016. http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/29/us/colorado-planned-parenthood-shooting/.
Photo Credit: Flickr User TFP Student Action
The opinions and views expressed through this publication are the opinions of the designated authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, our staff, or our clients.
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