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Law School Case Brief

Madsen v. Women's Health Ctr. - 512 U.S. 753, 114 S. Ct. 2516 (1994)

Rule:

When evaluating a content-neutral injunction, the Supreme Court of the United States must ask whether the challenged provisions of the injunction burden no more speech than necessary to serve a significant government interest.

Facts:

After petitioners and other antiabortion protesters threatened to picket and demonstrate around a Florida abortion clinic, a state court permanently enjoined petitioners from blocking or interfering with public access to the clinic, and from physically abusing persons entering or leaving it. Later, when respondent clinic operators sought to broaden the injunction, the court found that access to the clinic was still being impeded, that petitioners' activities were having deleterious physical effects on patients and discouraging some potential patients from entering the clinic, and that doctors and clinic workers were being subjected to protests at their homes. Accordingly, the court issued an amended injunction, which applied to petitioners and persons acting "in concert" with them, and which, inter alia, excluded demonstrators from a 36-foot buffer zone around the clinic entrances and driveway and the private property to the north and west of the clinic; restricted excessive noisemaking within the earshot of, and the use of "images observable" by, patients inside the clinic; prohibited protesters within a 300-foot zone around the clinic from approaching patients and potential patients who do not consent to talk; and created a 300-foot buffer zone around the residences of clinic staff. In upholding the amended injunction against petitioners' claim that it violated their First Amendment right to freedom of speech, the Florida Supreme Court recognized that the forum at issue is a traditional public forum; refused to apply the heightened scrutiny dictated by Perry Ed. Assn. v. Perry Local Educators' Assn., 460 U.S. 37, 45, 74 L. Ed. 2d 794, 103 S. Ct. 948, because the injunction's restrictions were content neutral; and concluded that the restrictions were narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest and left open ample alternative channels of communication.

Issue:

Was the injunction in question constitutional?

Answer:

Yes, as regards the injunction which imposed noise restrictions and buffer zone around the clinic; no, as regards the injunction which imposed a buffer zone around private properties.

Conclusion:

The Court affirmed in part and reversed in part the Florida Supreme Court decision. It was held that the inquiry in evaluating a content-neutral injunction under the First Amendment was whether the challenged provisions of the injunction burdened no more speech than necessary to serve a significant government interest. Under such standard, the provision establishing a 36-foot buffer zone around the clinic entrances and driveway and the provision establishing noise restrictions were constitutional. Given the focus of the picketing on patients and clinic staff, the narrowness of the confines around the clinic, the fact that protesters could still be seen and heard from the clinic parking lots, and the failure of the first injunction to accomplish its purpose, the 36-foot buffer zone around the clinic entrances and driveway, on balance, burdens no more speech than necessary to accomplish the governmental interests in protecting access to the clinic and facilitating an orderly traffic flow on the street. However, the 36-foot buffer zone as applied to the private property to the north and west of the clinic burdens more speech than necessary to protect access to the clinic. Patients and staff wishing to reach the clinic do not have to cross that property. Moreover, nothing in the record indicated that petitioners' activities on the property have obstructed clinic access, blocked vehicular traffic, or otherwise unlawfully interfered with the clinic's operation.

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