Supreme Court supports anti-abortion centers in free speech case


The U.S. Supreme Court has struck down a California law that required anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers to offer women information on abortion services, ruling that the measure violates the First Amendment by compelling speech.

Robert McNamara is senior attorney for the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va.

Robert McNamara

In a 5-to-4 decision issued June 26, the majority justices wrote that California cannot force the anti-abortion centers to post notices about obtaining abortions, comparing the requirement to a “government-drafted script” that forces the centers to give information about the very service they oppose. The justices sent the case back to the lower court for another assessment in light of their ruling.

The ruling protects people from being forced to express a message that violates their beliefs, said Michael Farris, president for Alliance Defending Freedom and counsel for the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA), the lead plaintiff.

“In this case, the government used its power to force pro-life pregnancy centers to provide free advertising for abortion,” Mr. Farris said in a statement. “The Supreme Court said that the government can’t do that and that it must respect pro-life beliefs. Tolerance and respect for good-faith differences of opinion are essential in a diverse society like ours. They enable us to coexist peacefully with one another. If we want to have freedom for ourselves, we have to extend it to others.”

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra expressed disappointment at the Supreme Court’s decision, saying the opinion complicates the state’s efforts to empower women with information about their health care.

“When it comes to making their health decisions, all California women – regardless of their economic background or zip code – deserve access to critical and nonbiased information to make their own informed decisions,” Mr. Becerra said in a statement. The “ruling is unfortunate, but our work to ensure that Californians receive accurate information about their health care options will continue.”

The legal challenge began after California passed its 2016 Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency (FACT) Act, which requires that pregnancy centers – many of which are anti-abortion – post notices about where patients can find free or low-cost abortion services. Another part of the law requires unlicensed pregnancy centers to disclose to women that they are not a licensed medical facility and have no medical professionals on staff.

The plaintiffs, led by the nonprofit NIFLA, argued that the law violated the First Amendment by requiring speech and because the measure unfairly targets centers that discourage abortions. California officials contended that the law was needed to address concerns that nonprofit organizations, often religious, were misrepresenting themselves as full-service reproductive health clinics and misleading women about their options.

However, in the court’s majority opinion, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that California can inform women about abortion services through other means, such as advertising, rather than burdening the plaintiffs with compelled speech.

“California cannot co-opt the licensed facilities to deliver its message for it,” he wrote. The “First Amendment does not permit the state to sacrifice speech for efficiency.”

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