Supreme Court sides with faith-based pregnancy centers in free speech case

Justices skeptical of California abortion notification law
Bill Hennessy via CNN

The Supreme Court sided Tuesday with faith-based pregnancy centers in California in a case that pitted abortion rights against free speech.

The ruling was 5-4.

In the majority opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the law “unduly burdens protected speech.”

The California Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency Act requires licensed clinics, which provide services like ultrasounds, to disseminate a notice stating that California has programs providing “immediate, free or low-cost access” to comprehensive family planning services including abortion.

The law also requires unlicensed clinics — those that provide resources such as vitamins and diapers but have no medical providers on site — to disseminate a notice that they are not licensed by the state. Religiously affiliated pregnancy centers say the law forces them to deliver a message that is both detrimental to their cause and in direct conflict with their mission to encourage childbirth.

Justice Anthony Kennedy stressed the free speech rights of those centers in a fiery concurring opinion

“Governments must not be allowed to force persons to express a message contrary to their deepest convictions. Freedom of speech secures freedom of thought and belief. This law imperils those liberties,” he wrote.

“It is forward thinking to begin by reading the First Amendment as ratified in 1791; to understand the history of authoritarian government as the Founders then knew it; to confirm that history since then shows how relentless authoritarian regimes are in their attempts to stifle free speech; and to carry those lessons onward as we seek to preserve and teach the necessity of freedom of speech for the generations to come.”

But Justice Stephen Breyer warned in a dissenting opinion, that “using the First Amendment to strike down economic and social laws that legislatures long would have thought themselves free to enact will, for the American public, obscure, not clarify, the true value of protecting freedom of speech.”

Overturns 9th Circuit

The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals said California has a substantial interest in “ensuring that its citizens have access to and adequate information about constitutionally protected medical services like abortion.”

The clinics, represented by the conservative Alliance Defending Freedom, said the court used too lax a standard when reviewing the law.

Supporters of the law — including groups such as the Center for Reproductive Rights and Planned Parenthood — said it was necessary because some clinics tried to disguise the fact that they oppose abortion.