The Pro-Life Advocate Who Won 9-0 at SCOTUS
Should the government be able to create censorship zones in which certain views are silenced?
Most Americans would agree that such a law would clearly violate the First Amendment right to the freedom of speech.
But in 2007, Massachusetts passed a law that did just that. The law created a 35-foot “buffer zone” restricting speech around abortion facilities. This effectively required sidewalk counselors, peaceful pro-life advocates like Eleanor McCullen, to call out to women entering the facilities from a faraway sidewalk or the middle of a busy street.
Eleanor filed a lawsuit challenging the Massachusetts law, and her case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the justices reached a unanimous decision in 2014.
Read more about this important case below.
Who is Eleanor McCullen?
For years, women and men walking into Planned Parenthood in downtown Boston could expect to pass an elderly woman on the sidewalk outside.
Two days a week, Eleanor McCullen would stand on the sidewalk outside the abortion facility. “I am called a sidewalk counselor. I like to offer hope, help, and love,” Eleanor says. She would speak to the women, trying to persuade them to choose life and informing them of resources available.
But sidewalk counseling wasn’t always a passion for Eleanor.
In the summer of 2000, she had her own “Damascus road” moment when God convicted her one day at Mass. Up until then, life had seemed rich and full enough, “but I was getting a little restless,” Eleanor recalls. Feeling convicted to do something greater for the Lord, she asked her priest for a few suggestions.
He told her to go down to Planned Parenthood and pray for the women there. Eleanor did just that, and she’s been serving the Lord and the women of Boston through sidewalk counseling ever since.
Eleanor served as a gentle voice outside the facility, attempting to save the lives of the unborn children of the women who entered. “I want to be there just to say ‘Hey, wait a second, don’t rush in, let’s see what we can do to help you!’” In her years of service, Eleanor has helped save over 200 unborn children from abortion.
But in 2007, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts passed a law that would hinder Eleanor’s important work and violate her freedom of speech.
McCullen v. Coakley
In 2007, Massachusetts created a fixed “buffer zone” around abortion centers by amending its Reproductive Health Care Facilities Act from 2000. This meant that pro-life advocates were required to keep at least 35 feet away from building entrances, exits, and driveways.
The new “buffer zone” dramatically affected the way sidewalk counselors could interact with mothers and fathers entering and exiting the centers. Instead of approaching with kindness and compassion, the law tried to force Eleanor and the other counselors to shout at the women and men to get their attention, giving the impression they were there to condemn, not help, the women and men and their unborn babies.
Alliance Defending Freedom gave full support to Allied Attorney Michael DePrimo who, along with two other Allied Attorneys, worked on behalf of Eleanor to challenge the new “buffer zone” statute.
“The U.S. Supreme Court had never approved of any type of a law even remotely similar to the Massachusetts statute,” DePrimo said. “The court has, for many, many years, said that speech on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide open.” Nevertheless, “the courts have been chipping away at the rights of pro-lifers, making it much more difficult for them to express their messages, even on public sidewalks.”
Litigation against the Massachusetts attorney general went on for eight years, finally reaching the Supreme Court in early 2013.
A few months after oral argument, the nine justices—who rarely all agree on anything—ruled unanimously in Eleanor's favor. “Even the most liberal Supreme Court justices ruled that the Massachusetts buffer statute violated the First Amendment,” DePrimo said.
The court’s decision didn’t affect just the abortion center Eleanor faithfully counseled at. Other cities across the country also began repealing similar buffer zone statutes, making it easier for pro-life counselors to do their life-saving work.
“It’s all glory to God,” Eleanor says, “and thank you to our lawyers for persevering.”
- November 2007: Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signed a buffer zone act into law, which unconstitutionally restricted the free speech of pro-life advocates, effectively preventing them from sharing their message to people entering abortion clinics.
- January 2008: Eleanor McCullen and other sidewalk counselors filed suit in federal district court.
- March 2012: ADF and Allied Attorneys appealed a trial court decision upholding the law to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.
- January 2013: The First Circuit upheld the Massachusetts law, keeping the unconstitutional buffer zones in place.
- June 2013: The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the constitutionality of Massachusetts’s buffer zone law.
- June 2014: The Supreme Court unanimously struck down the Massachusetts law.
The bottom line
Every American has the right to express their views on public property. This extends to pro-life sidewalk counselors who engage in peaceful prayer and speech outside abortion facilities.
Eleanor McCullen talks about sidewalk counseling in front of the Planned Parenthood in Boston:
ADF team members contributed to the writing and publication of this article.