Joseph and Eleanor McCullen

Joseph McCullen is the Chairman of McCullen Capital, LLC (MCAP), a Boston-based family office formed in 2000 to manage and invest the assets of the McCullen family.  MCAP also provides administrative support to the McCullen family’s 501(c)(3) charitable foundation known as the Flame of Love Foundation, which was established to provide assistance to distressed and poor individuals.

Mr. McCullen’s business career includes 25 highly successful years as an early-stage venture capitalist, focusing on high technology companies. Mr. McCullen was a board member and the founding investor in numerous private companies, several of which attained valuations in excess of a billion dollars upon sale or IPO. He served as a Managing Director of J.H. Whitney & Co. and OneLiberty Ventures (now called Flagship Ventures).

Mr. McCullen devoted 12 years to government service, four of them in the military as a young man, and later as a Special Assistant to the President of the United States (1971-1973). He went on to serve as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and Acting Secretary of the Navy (1973-1977).  Mr. McCullen also was an Associate Director of Ronald Reagan’s Presidential Transition Team. During his service to the country, he was the recipient of two Distinguished Public Service Medals. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Villanova University in 1957 and received an honorary doctorate degree from his alma mater in 1976.  .

The McCullens, particularly Eleanor, have a long history of supporting legal issues related to religious freedom. Mrs. McCullen, a lifelong Catholic and pro-life activist, was lead plaintiff in the U.S. Supreme Court case McCullen v. Coakley. In that case, which was adjudicated in June 2014, the Supreme Court made a unanimous decision that struck down a Massachusetts abortion clinic buffer zone statute on First Amendment grounds. 

Mrs. McCullen is a lay Franciscan who previously was the Vice Minister of the Franciscan Monastery in Kennebunkport, Maine. She has devoted much of her life to counseling pregnant women considering abortions; she has provided spiritual guidance, financial assistance, food, material items and has helped secure employment for mothers and fathers. In addition, Mrs. McCullen counsels prisoners at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Norfolk, Massachusetts. With her encouragement, several inmates have received college degrees, authored books and produced poetry and works of art. She has assisted former prisoners when they returned to society.

Frequently featured on the national public speaker circuit, Mrs. McCullen has been profiled in publications such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and National Review. She has studied at St. Joseph’s University in Pennsylvania and received an honorary PhD of Humane Letters from Holy Apostles College in Connecticut.

The Supreme Court of the United States: McCullen v. Coakley Syllabus

In 2014, the United States Supreme Court considered whether a Massachusetts statute that criminalized knowingly entering or remaining within a 35-foot radius of a health care facility that performs abortions violated the First Amendment.

Eleanor McCullen, the lead plaintiff, regularly stood outside of a Boston abortion clinic offering counseling to women who were seeking an abortion. Mrs. McCullen believed that protesting abortion with shouting or violence was counterproductive, and she believed that approaching people with an open demeanor, surrounding women with love, and offering counseling was a better method of speaking to women considering abortion. 

The Massachusetts statute made Mrs. McCullen’s counseling much more difficult, resulting in her mistaking passersby with women who were about to receive an abortion, having to raise her voice, or having to stop counseling a woman once she approached the painted buffer zone. All of this, Mrs. McCullen believed, hampered her ability to effectively counsel women about abortion alternatives. 

Mrs. McCullen and the other plaintiffs raised two arguments: (1) the Massachusetts statute violated the First Amendment because it impermissibly discriminated against speech on the basis of content by restricting only speech against abortion, and (2) the Massachusetts statute burdened more speech than necessary to further a legitimate government purpose.

The Supreme Court decided unanimously that the Massachusetts statute violated the First Amendment. The majority opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts rejected the first argument because it held that the Massachusetts buffer zone did not discriminate based on content or viewpoint. But even as a content-neutral regulation of speech, the Chief Justice noted that the statute must be “narrowly tailored to serve a significant governmental interest.” As the Chief Justice wrote:

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 “sacrific[ing] speech for efficiency.”

The Court noted that one-on-one communication is the most effective form of communication for petitioning or advocating for a particular view in a public forum, such as a sidewalk. Therefore, the Court held that the statute imposed a significant burden on speech. Additionally, the Court held that the Massachusetts General Assembly had not legitimately considered other, less intrusive legislation that would still serve legitimate state concerns, such as intimidating employees and women seeking an abortion or destroying property. Because “[t]he buffer zones burden substantially more speech than necessary to achieve the Commonwealth’s asserted interests,” the statute was held unconstitutional.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia (joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy and Justice Clarence Thomas) argued that the Massachusetts statute was a content-based restriction on speech and subject to strict scrutiny. Justice Samuel Alito also wrote a concurring opinion and argued that the statute imposed a viewpoint-based restriction on speech.

McCullen v. Coakley represented a significant development in the protection of freedom of speech under the First Amendment. It holds that even content-neutral restrictions on speech must still satisfy certain limitations and that the government may not censor speech purely as a matter of convenience. The Eleanor H. McCullen Center for Law, Religion and Public Policy at Villanova University is proud to bear the name of such a hero for the cause of freedom of speech.

The Eleanor H. McCullen Center for Law, Religion and Public Policy
Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law
299 N. Spring Mill Road
Villanova, Pennsylvania 19085