on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the first circuit

June 26, 2014

Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the Court.

A Massachusetts statute makes it a crime to knowingly stand on a “public way or sidewalk” within 35 feet of an entrance or driveway to any place, other than a hospital, where abortions are performed. Petitioners are individuals who approach and talk to women outside such facilities, attempting to dissuade them from having abortions. The statute prevents petitioners from doing so near the facilities’ entrances. The question presented is whether the statute violates the First Amendment.


In 2000, the Massachusetts Legislature enacted the Massachusetts Reproductive Health Care Facilities Act. The law was designed to address clashes between abortion opponents and advocates of abortion rights that were occurring outside clinics where abortions were performed. The Act established a defined area with an 18-foot radius around the entrances and driveways of such facilities. Anyone could enter that area, but once within it, no one (other than certain exempt individuals) could knowingly approach within six feet of another person—unless that person consented—“for the purpose of passing a leaflet or handbill to, displaying a sign to, or engaging in oral protest, education, or counseling with such other person.” A separate provision subjected to criminal punishment anyone who “knowingly obstructs, detains, hinders, impedes or blocks another person’s entry to or exit from a reproductive health care facility.”

By 2007, some Massachusetts legislators and law enforcement officials had come to regard the 2000 statute as inadequate. At legislative hearings, multiple witnesses recounted apparent violations of the law. Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, for example, testified that protestors violated the statute “on a routine basis.” To illustrate this claim, she played a video depicting protestors approaching patients and clinic staff within the buffer zones, ostensibly without the latter individuals’ consent. Clinic employees and volunteers also testified that protestors congregated near the doors and in the driveways of the clinics, with the result that prospective patients occasionally retreated from the clinics rather than try to make their way to the clinic entrances or parking lots.

Captain William B. Evans of the Boston Police Department, however, testified that his officers had made “no more than five or so arrests” at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston and that what few prosecutions had been brought were unsuccessful.  Witnesses attributed the dearth of enforcement to the difficulty of policing the six-foot no-approach zones. Captain Evans testified that the 18-foot zones were so crowded with protestors that they resembled “a goalie’s crease,” making it hard to determine whether a protestor had deliberately approached a patient or, if so, whether the patient had consented. For similar reasons, Attorney General Coakley concluded that the six-foot no-approach zones were “unenforceable.” What the police needed, she said, was a fixed buffer zone around clinics that protestors could not enter. Captain Evans agreed, explaining that such a zone would “make our job so much easier.” 

To address these concerns, the Massachusetts Legislature amended the statute in 2007, replacing the six-foot no-approach zones (within the 18-foot area) with a 35-foot fixed buffer zone from which individuals are categorically excluded. The statute now provides:

“No person shall knowingly enter or remain on a public way or sidewalk adjacent to a reproductive health care facility within a radius of 35 feet of any portion of an entrance, exit or driveway of a reproductive health care facility or within the area within a rectangle created by extending the outside boundaries of any entrance, exit or driveway of a reproductive health care facility in straight lines to the point where such lines intersect the sideline of the street in front of such entrance, exit or driveway.”

A “reproductive health care facility,” in turn, is defined as “a place, other than within or upon the grounds of a hospital, where abortions are offered or performed.”

The 35-foot buffer zone applies only “during a facility’s business hours,” and the area must be “clearly marked and posted.” In practice, facilities typically mark the zones with painted arcs and posted signs on adjacent sidewalks and streets. A first violation of the statute is punishable by a fine of up to $500, up to three months in prison, or both, while a subsequent offense is punishable by a fine of between $500 and $5,000, up to two and a half years in prison, or both.

The Act exempts four classes of individuals: (1) “persons entering or leaving such facility”; (2) “employees or agents of such facility acting within the scope of their employment”; (3) “law enforcement, ambulance, firefighting, construction, utilities, public works and other municipal agents acting within the scope of their employment”; and (4) “persons using the public sidewalk or street right-of-way adjacent to such facility solely for the purpose of reaching a destination other than such facility.”

Some of the individuals who stand outside Massachusetts abortion clinics are fairly described as protestors, who express their moral or religious opposition to abortion through signs and chants or, in some cases, more aggressive methods such as face-to-face confrontation. Petitioners take a different tack. They attempt to engage women approaching the clinics in what they call “sidewalk counseling,” which involves offering information about alternatives to abortion and help pursuing those options. Petitioner Eleanor McCullen, for instance, will typically initiate a conversation this way: “Good morning, may I give you my literature? Is there anything I can do for you? I’m available if you have any questions.” If the woman seems receptive, McCullen will provide additional information. McCullen and the other petitioners consider it essential to maintain a caring demeanor, a calm tone of voice, and direct eye contact during these exchanges. Such interactions, petitioners believe, are a much more effective means of dissuading women from having abortions than confrontational methods such as shouting or brandishing signs, which in petitioners’ view tend only to antagonize their intended audience. In unrefuted testimony, petitioners say they have collectively persuaded hundreds of women to forgo abortions.

The buffer zones have displaced petitioners from their previous positions outside the clinics. McCullen offers counseling outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston, as do petitioners Jean Zarrella and Eric Cadin. Petitioner Gregory Smith prays the rosary there. The clinic occupies its own building on a street corner. Its main door is recessed into an open foyer, approximately 12 feet back from the public sidewalk. Before the Act was amended to create the buffer zones, petitioners stood near the entryway to the foyer. Now a buffer zone—marked by a painted arc and a sign—surrounds the entrance. This zone extends 23 feet down the sidewalk in one direction, 26 feet in the other, and outward just one foot short of the curb. The clinic’s entrance adds another seven feet to the width of the zone. The upshot is that petitioners are effectively excluded from a 56-foot-wide expanse of the public sidewalk in front of the clinic....

In January 2008, petitioners sued Attorney General Coakley and other Commonwealth officials. They sought to enjoin enforcement of the Act, alleging that it violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments, both on its face and as applied to them. The District Court denied petitioners’ facial challenge after a bench trial based on a stipulated record. The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed.

We granted certiorari.


By its very terms, the Massachusetts Act regulates access to “public way[s]” and “sidewalk[s].”  Such areas occupy a “special position in terms of First Amendment protection” because of their historic role as sites for discussion and debate.  These places—which we have labeled “traditional public fora”—have immemorially been held in trust for the use of the public and, time out of mind, have been used for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens, and discussing public questions. 

It is no accident that public streets and sidewalks have developed as venues for the exchange of ideas. Even today, they remain one of the few places where a speaker can be confident that he is not simply preaching to the choir. With respect to other means of communication, an individual confronted with an uncomfortable message can always turn the page, change the channel, or leave the Web site. Not so on public streets and sidewalks. There, a listener often encounters speech he might otherwise tune out. In light of the First Amendment’s purpose “to preserve an uninhibited marketplace of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail,” this aspect of traditional public fora is a virtue, not a vice.

In short, traditional public fora are areas that have historically been open to the public for speech activities. Thus, even though the Act says nothing about speech on its face, there is no doubt—and respondents do not dispute—that it restricts access to traditional public fora and is therefore subject to First Amendment scrutiny.

Consistent with the traditionally open character of public streets and sidewalks, we have held that the government’s ability to restrict speech in such locations is “very limited.” In particular, the guiding First Amendment principle that the “government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content” applies with full force in a traditional public forum.  As a general rule, in such a forum the government may not “selectively . . . shield the public from some kinds of speech on the ground that they are more offensive than others.” 

We have, however, afforded the government somewhat wider leeway to regulate features of speech unrelated to its content. “[E]ven in a public forum the government may impose reasonable restrictions on the time, place, or manner of protected speech, provided the restrictions ‘are justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech, that they are narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest, and that they leave open ample alternative channels for communication of the information.’ ” 

While the parties agree that this test supplies theproper framework for assessing the constitutionality of the Massachusetts Act, they disagree about whether the Act satisfies the test’s three requirements.


Petitioners contend that the Act is not content neutral for two independent reasons: First, they argue that it discriminates against abortion-related speech because it establishes buffer zones only at clinics that perform abortions. Second, petitioners contend that the Act, by exempting clinic employees and agents, favors one viewpoint about abortion over the other. If either of these arguments is correct, then the Act must satisfy strict scrutiny—that is, it must be the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling state interest.  Respondents do not argue that the Act can survive this exacting standard.

Justice Scalia objects to our decision to consider whether the statute is content based and thus subject to strict scrutiny, given that we ultimately conclude that it is not narrowly tailored.  But we think it unexceptional to perform the first part of a multipart constitutional analysis first. The content-neutrality prong of the Ward test is logically antecedent to the narrow-tailoring prong, because it determines the appropriate level of scrutiny. It is not unusual for the Court to proceed sequentially in applying a constitutional test, even when the preliminary steps turn out not to be dispositive....

At the same time, there is good reason to address content neutrality. In discussing whether the Act is narrowly tailored, we identify a number of less-restrictive alternative measures that the Massachusetts Legislature might have adopted. Some apply only at abortion clinics, which raises the question whether those provisions are content neutral. While we need not (and do not) endorse any of those measures, it would be odd to consider them as possible alternatives if they were presumptively unconstitutional because they were content based and thus subject to strict scrutiny.

The Act applies only at a “reproductive health care facility,” defined as “a place, other than within or upon the grounds of a hospital, where abortions are offered or performed.” Given this definition, petitioners argue, “virtually all speech affected by the Act is speech concerning abortion,” thus rendering the Act content based.

We disagree. To begin, the Act does not draw content-based distinctions on its face. The Act would be content based if it required “enforcement authorities” to “examine the content of the message that is conveyed to determine whether” a violation has occurred. But it does not. Whether petitioners violate the Act “depends” not “on what they say,” but simply on where they say it. Indeed, petitioners can violate the Act merely by standing in a buffer zone, without displaying a sign or uttering a word.

It is true, of course, that by limiting the buffer zones to abortion clinics, the Act has the “inevitable effect” of restricting abortion-related speech more than speech on other subjects. But a facially neutral law does not become content based simply be-cause it may disproportionately affect speech on certain topics. On the contrary, “[a] regulation that serves purposes unrelated to the content of expression is deemed neutral, even if it has an incidental effect on some speakers or messages but not others.” 

The Massachusetts Act is. Its stated purpose is to “increase forthwith public safety at reproductive health care facilities.” Respondents have articulated similar purposes before this Court—namely, “public safety, patient access to healthcare, and the unobstructed use of public sidewalks and roadways.” It is not the case that “[e]very objective indication shows that the provision’s primary purpose is to restrict speech that opposes abortion.” 

We have previously deemed the foregoing concerns to be content neutral. Obstructed access and congested sidewalks are problems no matter what caused them. A group of individuals can obstruct clinic access and clog sidewalks just as much when they loiter as when they protest abortion or counsel patients.

To be clear, the Act would not be content neutral if it were concerned with undesirable effects that arise from “the direct impact of speech on its audience” or “[l]isteners’ reactions to speech.” If, for example, the speech outside Massachusetts abortion clinics caused offense or made listeners uncomfortable, such offense or discomfort would not give the Commonwealth a content-neutral justification to restrict the speech. All of the problems identified by the Commonwealth here, however, arise irrespective of any listener’s reactions. Whether or not a single person reacts to abortion protestors’ chants or petitioners’ counseling, large crowds outside abortion clinics can still compromise public safety, impede access, and obstruct sidewalks.

Petitioners do not really dispute that the Commonwealth’s interests in ensuring safety and preventing obstruction are, as a general matter, content neutral. But petitioners note that these interests “apply outside every building in the State that hosts any activity that might occasion protest or comment,” not just abortion clinics. By choosing to pursue these interests only at abortion clinics, petitioners argue, the Massachusetts Legislature evinced a purpose to “single[ ] out for regulation speech about one particular topic: abortion.”

We cannot infer such a purpose from the Act’s limited scope. The broad reach of a statute can help confirm that it was not enacted to burden a narrower category of disfavored speech. At the same time, however, “States adopt laws to address the problems that confront them. The First Amendment does not require States to regulate for problems that do not exist.”  The Massachusetts Legislature amended the Act in 2007 in response to a problem that was, in its experience, limited to abortion clinics. There was a record of crowding, obstruction, and even violence outside such clinics. There were apparently no similar recurring problems associated with other kinds of healthcare facilities, let alone with “every building in the State that hosts any activity that might occasion protest or comment.” In light of the limited nature of the problem, it was reasonable for the Massachusetts Legislature to enact a limited solution. When selecting among various options for combating a particular problem, legislatures should be encouraged to choose the one that restricts less speech, not more.

Justice Scalia objects that the statute does restrict more speech than necessary, because “only one [Massachusetts abortion clinic] is known to have been beset by the problems that the statute supposedly addresses.” But there are no grounds for inferring content-based discrimination here simply because the legislature acted with respect to abortion facilities generally rather than proceeding on a facility-by-facility basis. On these facts, the poor fit noted by Justice Scalia goes to the question of narrow tailoring, which we consider below.

Petitioners also argue that the Act is content based because it exempts four classes of individuals, one of which comprises “employees or agents of [a reproductive healthcare] facility acting within the scope of their employment.” This exemption, petitioners say, favors one side in the abortion debate and thus constitutes viewpoint discrimination—an “egregious form of content discrimination.” In particular, petitioners argue that the exemption allows clinic employees and agents—including the volunteers who “escort” patients arriving at the Boston clinic—to speak inside the buffer zones.

It is of course true that “an exemption from an otherwise permissible regulation of speech may represent a governmental ‘attempt to give one side of a debatable public question an advantage in expressing its views to the people.’ ” At least on the record before us, however, the statutory exemption for clinic employees and agents acting within the scope of their employment does not appear to be such an attempt. There is nothing inherently suspect about providing some kind of exemption to allow individuals who work at the clinics to enter or remain within the buffer zones. In particular, the exemption cannot be regarded as simply a carve-out for the clinic escorts; it also covers employees such as the maintenance worker shoveling a snowy sidewalk or the security guard patrolling a clinic entrance.

Given the need for an exemption for clinic employees, the “scope of their employment” qualification simply ensures that the exemption is limited to its purpose of allowing the employees to do their jobs.... It would be a very different question if it turned out that a clinic authorized escorts to speak about abortion inside the buffer zones. In that case, the escorts would not seem to be violating the Act because the speech would be within the scope of their employment. The Act’s exemption for clinic employees would then facilitate speech on only one side of the abortion debate—a clear form of viewpoint discrimination that would support an as-applied challenge to the buffer zone at that clinic. But the record before us contains insufficient evidence to show that the exemption operates in this way at any of the clinics, perhaps because the clinics do not want to doom the Act by allowing their employees to speak about abortion within the buffer zones. 

We thus conclude that the Act is neither content nor viewpoint based and therefore need not be analyzed under strict scrutiny.


Even though the Act is content neutral, it still must be “narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest.” The tailoring requirement does not simply guard against an impermissible desire to censor. The government may attempt to suppress speech not only because it disagrees with the message being expressed, but also for mere convenience. Where certain speech is associated with particular problems, silencing the speech is sometimes the path of least resistance. But by demanding a close fit between ends and means, the tailoring requirement prevents the government from too readily “sacrificing speech for efficiency.” 

For a content-neutral time, place, or manner regulation to be narrowly tailored, it must not “burden substantially more speech than is necessary to further the government’s legitimate interests.” Such a regulation, unlike a content-based restriction of speech, “need not be the least restrictive or least intrusive means of” serving the government’s interests. But the government still “may not regulate expression in such a manner that a substantial portion of the burden on speech does not serve to advance its goals.” 

The buffer zones impose serious burdens on petitioners’ speech. At each of the three Planned Parenthood clinics where petitioners attempt to counsel patients, the zones carve out a significant portion of the adjacent public sidewalks, pushing petitioners well back from the clinics’ entrances and driveways. The zones thereby compromise petitioners’ ability to initiate the close, personal conversations that they view as essential to “sidewalk counseling.”

For example, in uncontradicted testimony, McCullen explained that she often cannot distinguish patients from passersby outside the Boston clinic in time to initiate a conversation before they enter the buffer zone. And even when she does manage to begin a discussion outside the zone, she must stop abruptly at its painted border, which she believes causes her to appear “untrustworthy” or “suspicious.” Given these limitations, McCullen is often reduced 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.

These burdens on petitioners’ speech have clearly taken their toll. Although McCullen claims that she has persuaded about 80 women not to terminate their pregnancies since the 2007 amendment, she also says that she reaches “far fewer people” than she did before the amendment. Zarrella reports an even more precipitous decline in her success rate: She estimated having about 100 successful interactions over the years before the 2007 amendment, but not a single one since. Id., at 180. And as for the Worcester clinic, Clark testified that “only one woman out of 100 will make the effort to walk across [the street] to speak with [her].” 

The buffer zones have also made it substantially more difficult for petitioners to distribute literature to arriving patients. As explained, because petitioners in Boston cannot readily identify patients before they enter the zone, they often cannot approach them in time to place literature near their hands—the most effective means of getting the patients to accept it.

The Court of Appeals and respondents are wrong to downplay these burdens on petitioners’ speech. As the Court of Appeals saw it, the Constitution does not accord “special protection” to close conversations or “handbilling.” But while the First Amendment does not guarantee a speaker the right to any particular form of expression, some forms—such as normal conversation and leafletting on a public sidewalk—have historically been more closely associated with the transmission of ideas than others.

In the context of petition campaigns, we have observed that “one-on-one communication” is “the most effective, fundamental, and perhaps economical avenue of political discourse.” And “handing out leaflets in the advocacy of a politically controversial viewpoint . . . is the essence of First Amendment expression”; “no form of speech is entitled to greater constitutional protection.” When the government makes it more difficult to engage in these modes of communication, it imposes an especially significant First Amendment burden....

The buffer zones burden substantially more speech than necessary to achieve the Commonwealth’s asserted interests. At the outset, we note that the Act is truly exceptional: Respondents and their amici identify no other State with a law that creates fixed buffer zones around abortion clinics.  That of course does not mean that the law is invalid. It does, however, raise concern that the Commonwealth has too readily forgone options that could serve its interests just as well, without substantially burdening the kind of speech in which petitioners wish to engage.

That is the case here. The Commonwealth’s interests include ensuring public safety outside abortion clinics, preventing harassment and intimidation of patients and clinic staff, and combating deliberate obstruction of clinic entrances. The Act itself contains a separate provision, subsection (e)—unchallenged by petitioners—that prohibits much of this conduct. That provision subjects to criminal punishment “[a]ny person who knowingly obstructs, detains, hinders, impedes or blocks another person’s entry to or exit from a reproductive health care facility.”  The Commonwealth points to a substantial public safety risk created when protestors obstruct driveways leading to the clinics. That is, however, an example of its failure to look to less intrusive means of addressing its concerns. Any such obstruction can readily be addressed through existing local ordinances. All of the foregoing measures are, of course, in addition to available generic criminal statutes forbidding assault, breach of the peace, trespass, vandalism, and the like....

The Commonwealth also asserts an interest in preventing congestion in front of abortion clinics. According to respondents, even when individuals do not deliberately obstruct access to clinics, they can inadvertently do so simply by gathering in large numbers. But the Commonwealth could address that problem through more targeted means. Some localities, for example, have ordinances that require crowds blocking a clinic entrance to disperse when ordered to do so by the police, and that forbid the individuals to reassemble within a certain distance of the clinic for a certain period.  We upheld a similar law forbidding three or more people to congregate within 500 feet of [a foreign embassy], and refuse to disperse after having been ordered so to do by the police—an order the police could give only when they reasonably believed that a threat to the security or peace of the embassy was present...

The point is not that Massachusetts must enact all or even any of the proposed measures discussed above. The point is instead that the Commonwealth has available to it a variety of approaches that appear capable of serving its interests, without excluding individuals from areas historically open for speech and debate.

Respondents have but one reply: “We have tried other approaches, but they do not work.”  We cannot accept that contention. Although respondents claim that Massachusetts “tried other laws already on the books,” they identify not a single prosecution brought under those laws within at least the last 17 years. And while they also claim that the Commonwealth “tried injunctions,” the last injunctions they cite date to the 1990s. In short, the Commonwealth has not shown that it seriously undertook to address the problem with less intrusive tools readily available to it. Nor has it shown that it considered different methods that other jurisdictions have found effective.

Respondents contend that the alternatives we have discussed suffer from two defects: First, given the “widespread” nature of the problem, it is simply not “practicable” to rely on individual prosecutions and injunctions. But far from being “widespread,” the problem appears from the record to be limited principally to the Boston clinic on Saturday mornings. Moreover, by their own account, the police appear perfectly capable of singling out lawbreakers.... If Commonwealth officials can compile an extensive record of obstruction and harassment to support their preferred legislation, we do not see why they cannot do the same to support injunctions and prosecutions against those who might deliberately flout the law....

Petitioners wish to converse with their fellow citizens about an important subject on the public streets and sidewalks—sites that have hosted discussions about the issues of the day throughout history. Respondents assert undeniably significant interests in maintaining public safety on those same streets and sidewalks, as well as in preserving access to adjacent healthcare facilities. But here the Commonwealth has pursued those interests by the extreme step of closing a substantial portion of a traditional public forum to all speakers. It has done so without seriously addressing the problem through alternatives that leave the forum open for its time-honored purposes. The Commonwealth may not do that consistent with the First Amendment.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

Exploring Constitutional Law