Friday, January 5, 2018
The Fourth Circuit ruled today that the city of Baltimore cannot compel a pregnancy-care center to post signs in its waiting room stating that it does not perform or refer for abortions. The Center is a Christian non-profit operating in space provided rent-free by a Catholic parish. It argued that the ordinance forced it to raise, in the sensitive context of "its own waiting room," the topic--abortion--that is "at odds with its foundational beliefs and with the principles of those who have given their working lives to it." The opinion, by Judge Wilkinson, rejects the city's arguments that all of the Center's speech is commercial speech and professional speech, and thus deserving lesser First Amendment protection, simply because it provides (free) ultrasounds, counseling, and other services. The court then concludes that the ordinance is not narrowly tailored:
Baltimore seeks to combat deceptive advertising and consequent delays in abortion services. In that respect the ordinance is quite overinclusive. It applies to pregnancy centers without regard to whether their advertising is misleading, or indeed whether they advertise at all. [T]he direct application of laws prohibiting misleading advertising might provide a better fit for the problems about which the City is concerned.
There are, in short, too many problems with the City’s case. The dangers of compelled speech in an area as ideologically sensitive and spiritually fraught as this one require that the government not overplay its hand.
Becket, who has litigated the case very well as always, has a page of resources on it. The St. Thomas Religious Liberty Appellate Clinic, which I supervise, filed an amicus brief supporting the clinic on behalf of the Democrats for Life and the Christian Legal Society. We argued, among other things, that to call the speech here "commercial," when the Center charges no money for its services and the law does not target any advertising itself,
would expand that category to sweep in not just the Center, but a wide range of organizations and ministries that provide free services to those in need. This effect would follow, first, from the City’s arguments that the Center “proposes a commercial transaction” and has an “economic motivation.” The City argues that the Center fits within those categories because, although it offers services for free, the services are “commercially valuable”—that is, they could be provided for money. But nonprofit or religious soup kitchens, pastoral counseling services, immigrant/refugee ministries, and countless other organizations all offer free services that could be provided for money. By the City’s rationale, all of these organizations could be subjected to disclosure mandates and other intrusive regulation.
The Fourth Circuit distinguished the case from the NIFLA case currently before the Supreme Court: "In [NIFLA], the court applied the professional speech doctrine [reducing the level of speech protection] only to compelled disclosures in clinics licensed by the state. The Ninth Circuit did not reach the question of whether the doctrine applied to disclosures required in unlicensed pregnancy centers like the one at issue here."