In the Supreme Court’s 2000 decision in Hill v. Colorado, a 6-3 majority upheld Colorado’s “buffer zone” law, which prevents anti-abortion protesters from harassing patients and interfering with the operation of clinics that provide abortion services.  McCullen v. Coakley revisits the buffer zone debate, and threatens to dismantle this precedent, which allows states to safeguard the access of women and their families’ to reproductive health services.  Although Massachusetts’ law, which mandates a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics, is very similar to the law upheld in Hill, there are some differences.  Most significantly, the Colorado law barred all speakers from the buffer zone, whereas the Massachusetts statute allows clinic employees and agents inside the buffer zone.  The opponents of the law urge the Court to strike down the law as a content-based restriction on speech that violates the First Amendment because of this exception.  Moreover, they are asking the Court to consider limiting or overruling Hill and striking down buffer zone laws entirely.

The biggest difference between Hill and McCullen is the membership of the Supreme Court.  Since 2000, Justice Alito has joined the Court as Justice O’Connor’s replacement, and Chief Justice Roberts has replaced Chief Justice Rehnquist; both Justice O’Connor and Chief Justice Rehnquist voted with the 2000 Hill majority to uphold the buffer zone law.

  • You can read more analysis of the case by Megan Amundson, Executive Director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, on AFJ’s Justice Watch blog.
  • Find out more about efforts to limit abortion rights – and see what really goes on outside clinics – in our video Roe at Risk.