Defending the Right to Public Presence

The essential distinction between “private” and “public” property is the egalitarian nature of the latter. There’s no true equality in private property: its owners are free to set whatever restrictions on its use they wish.

On the other hand, public property, especially public fora such as sidewalks, parks, and roads—which have traditionally been available for public speeches, protests, and rallies—is entirely different. Just as we’re all equal in a court of law, or at the ballot box, we’re all supposed to be equal in our freedom to use and enjoy public spaces.

In 2008, however, Massachusetts turned this understanding on its head, declaring that in certain public spaces, some people are more equal than others. The state passed a law making it a crime to physically come within 35 feet of abortion clinics unless you’re a clinic patient, staff member, or government agent, or are using a public road or sidewalk to travel past the clinic. By the state’s own admission, the law was designed to prevent anti-abortion advocates from engaging in “sidewalk counseling.”

When a group of peaceful anti-abortion advocates challenged the law as a violation of their free speech rights, the district and circuit courts accepted the state’s argument that the law was valid as a content-neutral regulation of the time, place, and manner in which the public may engage in free speech. The Supreme Court has now taken up the case, and the petitioners argue that a law designed to target one type of speech, in one type of location, cannot be considered content- or viewpoint-neutral.

While this is indeed an important test-case for the First Amendment, Cato filed an amicus brief in support of the petitioners to present a separate point. The Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause protects certain fundamental rights against government infringement: rights that are essential to the enjoyment of the freedoms protected by the Bill of Rights, or that are part of the meaning of “ordered liberty,” or that are part of America’s history and traditions.Regardless of your preferred formulation for these protected rights, we argue that one of them is the right to public presence: the right to peacefully use public property in any manner that doesn’t harm others or unreasonably restrict their freedom to use that same public space.

Government interference with a fundamental right must pass “strict scrutiny”; it must serve a “compelling” interest and restrict no more freedom than is necessary to serve that interest. Because this law doesn’t target any specifically objectionable behavior and instead opts for a blanket ban on physical proximity to abortion clinics, it has not been narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest—and therefore must be declared unconstitutional.

The Court will argument in McCullen v. Coakley in late fall or early winter.

This blogpost was co-authored by Cato legal associate Gabriel Latner.