Justices Take Cases on Free Speech at Pregnancy Centers and Polling Places


WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear two cases on the limits of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. One asks whether California may require “crisis pregnancy centers” to provide information about abortion. The other is a challenge to a Minnesota law that forbids wearing political buttons, badges and other insignia at polling places.

The California case, National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra, No. 16-1140, concerns a state law that requires centers operated by opponents of abortion to provide women with information about the availability of the procedure. The centers seek to persuade women to choose parenting or adoption.

The state law requires the centers to post notices that free or low-cost abortion, contraception and prenatal care are available to low-income women through public programs, and to provide the phone number for more information.

The centers say the law violates their right to free speech by forcing them to convey messages at odds with their beliefs. The law’s defenders say the notices combat incomplete or misleading information provided by the clinics.

The California Legislature found that the roughly 200 centers in the state used “intentionally deceptive advertising and counseling practices that often confuse, misinform, and even intimidate women from making fully-informed, time-sensitive decisions about critical health care.”

A separate part of the law applied to unlicensed clinics. They are not required to post notices about the availability of abortion, but are required to disclose that they are not licensed by the state.

Last year, a unanimous three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, upheld both parts of the law.

“California has a substantial interest in the health of its citizens, including ensuring that its citizens have access to and adequate information about constitutionally protected medical services like abortion,” Judge Dorothy W. Nelson wrote for the panel in upholding the requirement that licensed clinics post a notice about abortion.

“The notice informs the reader only of the existence of publicly funded family-planning services,” Judge Nelson wrote. “It does not contain any more speech than necessary, nor does it encourage, suggest or imply that women should use those state-funded services.”

Other federal appeals courts have struck down similar laws, saying that the government could find other ways to inform women about their options.

The Ninth Circuit also upheld the requirement that unlicensed clinics disclose that they are unlicensed.

“California has a compelling interest in informing pregnant women when they are using the medical services of a facility that has not satisfied licensing standards set by the state,” Judge Nelson wrote. “And given the Legislature’s findings regarding the existence of” the centers, “which often present misleading information to women about reproductive medical services, California’s interest in presenting accurate information about the licensing status of individual clinics is particularly compelling.”

Next month, the court will hear arguments in another First Amendment case. That one concerns a Colorado baker who contends that being required to create a wedding cake for a same-sex marriage violates his right to free speech.

The Supreme Court on Monday also agreed to decide whether a Minnesota law that bars political buttons and badges at polling places on Election Day is constitutional. Voters affiliated with the Tea Party said the law infringed on their right to free speech.

The case, Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky, No. 16-1435, started when Andrew Cilek was temporarily prevented from voting while wearing a T-shirt that said “Don’t Tread on Me” and bore a Tea Party logo. He also wore a button that said “Please I.D. Me.”

He and others challenged the law on free speech grounds, saying that the government may not bar apparel that merely conveyed a philosophy rather than an endorsement of a particular candidate, party or ballot measure.

The Eighth Circuit, in St. Louis, upheld the law. “Even if Tea Party apparel is not election-related, it is not unreasonable to prohibit it in a polling place,” Judge Duane Benton wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel. “In order to ensure a neutral, influence-free polling place, all political material is banned.”

In 1992, the Supreme Court upheld a Tennessee law that barred soliciting votes and distributing campaign material within 100 feet of polling places.

The challengers in the Minnesota case argued that the state’s law is broader, crossing a constitutional line.

“‘Speech-free zones’ cannot be reconciled with the First Amendment’s free speech clause,” the challengers told the justices in their brief seeking review. “Although this court has permitted campaign-free zones that prohibit campaign materials and active solicitation, it has never endorsed a ban on all political speech.”

State officials responded that “the interior of a polling place is a nonpublic forum in which speech restrictions are constitutional as long as they are reasonable and viewpoint neutral.”



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