Early next year, the Supreme Court will take up McCullen v. Coakley, a case challenging the Massachusetts statutethat requires anti-abortion protesters and “sidewalk counselors” to stay at least 35 feet away from abortion-clinic entrances. Signed by Governor Deval Patrick in 2007, it is the strictest such “buffer zone” law in the nation; violators can be punished with up to 30 months in prison and fines as high as $5,000.
But McCullen v. Coakley isn’t about abortion. It’s about freedom of speech. Can Massachusetts make it a crime for private citizens to stand on a public sidewalk and peacefully express their view?
It’s easy to defend free speech when you agree with the speaker’s message. The challenge is to do so when the message is one you despise. “If liberty means anything at all,” George Orwell wrote, “it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”