Early next year, the Supreme Court will take up McCullen v. Coakley, a case challenging the Massachusetts statute that 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." A lot of people don't want to hear that abortion is wrong, or to be confronted with images of babies in the womb, or to be reminded that "choice" is a euphemism for the destruction of human life. Many Americans may find such messages alarming, outrageous, or upsetting, especially when they are directed at girls or women going to get an abortion. But the First Amendment wasn't written to shield citizens in public spaces from unpopular or distressing speech. It was written to shield unpopular or distressing speech from being suppressed in public spaces.
There have always been messages that some Americans despise, and there have usually been government officials prepared to stifle the messenger.
At the State Capitol in South Carolina in 1961, the sight of black students carrying signs reading "Down with segregation" was one that white onlookers may have found genuinely offensive. But that didn't entitle police to arrest the students for breach of the peace and throw them in jail, as the Supreme Court ruled in Edwards v. South Carolina two years later.