« Standing and defendants | Main | On soccer »

Thursday, June 26, 2014

McCullen and intermediate scrutiny

The Court in McCullen v. Coakley invalidated Massachusetts' 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics. The Court was unanimous in the judgment, but not in the reasoning--the Chief (surprisingly, sans pithy quips) wrote for the Court; Justice Scalia concurred (angily) in the judgment, joined by Justices Kennedy and Thomas; and Justice Alito separately concurred in the judgment.

The point of departure was whether the buffer zone was a content-based restriction subject to strict scrutiny or whether it was content-neutral subject only to intermediate scrutiny. The majority held the latter, because on its face the legislature was concerned with public safety, patient access to clinics, and the unob­structed use of public sidewalks and roadways, none of which have anything to do with the content of the (anti-abortion) speech regulated; the majority did not rely on the rationale from Hill v. Colorado of a state interest in protecting clinic patients from having to deal with unwanted speech. Justice Scalia insisted the law was content-based, largely for the reasons he insisted the buffer zone upheld in Hill was content-based (Scalia is still fighting that case rhetorically). The law did not survive intermediate scrutiny, because there were alternative ways to ensure safety and access that would have been less speech-restrictive.

The Court stated at several points that the plaintiffs here were not abortion protesters, which it defined as people with signs and bullhorns, chanting and shouting about the evils of abortion. The plaintiffs were "counselors," who want to have a calm, quiet, compassionate, consensual conversation and to hand-out literature "informing" women of their options. Thus, the adequate alternative means of communication they needed were different. It was not enough that they could stand across the street beyond the buffer zone in order to speak as they wanted; they needed the time and space to have a calm, intimate, within-arms-reach conversation, which the buffer zone did not allow.

This marks just the fourth time since the creation of the modern content distinction that the Court has invalidated applied intermediate scrutiny to invalidate a content-neutral law (the others were Bartnicki, Gilleo, and Watchtower). Intermediate scrutiny requires that the regulation be narrowly tailored and leave open ample alternative channels of communication, as opposed to being the least restrictive means to serve the interest. But the majority seemsed to demand more than it typically does on the narrow-tailoring prong. It pointed to all the other legislative strategies that Massacusetts could have tried (and that the United States and other states have tried); it pointed to the state's failure to prosecute anyone for violating the old buffer-zone laws before moving on to this more-restrictive approach; it pointed to the fact that the law regulates all clincs, although there was a record only of problems at one Boston clinic on Saturday morning; and it pointedly rejected the justification that a blanket buffer zone is easier for the state to administer than a law requiring a showing of harassment or intent to obstruct. Such close review strikes me as an analyitcally correct approach to the First Amendment; it just does not sound like typical intermediate scrutiny.

The dispute between the majority and the Scalia concurrence arguably was less about this case and more about where we go from here. Scalia is still enraged by what he sees as an "abortion-speech-only jurisprudence," which has manifested in the failure to recognize as content-based restrictions that, whether facially or practically, only regulate anti-abortion speech. He made a similar point in his Hill dissent about the deck being stacked against those who oppose abortion rights. (Of course, it is similarly odd to see Scalia suggesting that the Court would and should vigorously scrutinize a law barring protesters from the streets and sidewalks outside the Republican National Convention). On the other hand, there are good arguments that courts place too much weight on the content-distinction, where identifying something as content-neutral seals the case for the government because intermediate scrutiny is so easily satisfied. Perhaps the majority opinion, while too easily concluding that the law was content-neutral, reflects a renewed vigor in reviewing content-neutral laws, rather than giving the government a free-ish pass once it is found that a regulation is not content-based. (Mike Dorf wonders how this might affect so-called "ag-gag" regulations prohibiting recording of conditions and treatment of animals on farms, which are similarly directed at a type of speech but also can be justified in terms of privacy, safety, and property).

The majority suggestsed that an alternative to this sort of blunderbuss legislation is to regulate clinic access through "targeted injunctions" once clinic blockage has become a problem; courts can better demand a record of a problem based on people's actual conduct and tailor the remedy to the specific clinic and its geography and needs. But such a stated preference for injunctions over legislation seems to fly in the face of established First Amendment doctrine, which generally abhors prior restraints on speech, even prior restraints based on a showing of past misconduct.

Finally, lower courts are left with the task of reconciling McCullen with Hill; although the parties briefed whether to overrule Hill, the majority did not address that issue (or even discuss that case). Justice Scalia suggested (and urged future parties to argue) that Hill has been sub silentio overruled. He emphasized that the majority here refused to rely on the avoiding-unwelcome-speech government interest (going for public safety, access, and avoiding obstruction instead) and that the majority acknowledged that a law is not content-neutral if the undesirable effects result from reactions to speech. Since that is the essence of the analysis and holding of Hill, it must not be good law.

Update: One last question to add: Under a principled application of today's decision, can the anti-Westboro funeral buffer zones be constitutionally valid? Most of those are much larger than 35 feet.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on June 26, 2014 at 03:53 PM in Constitutional thoughts, First Amendment, Law and Politics | Permalink

Comments

Post a comment