The Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday over a California law requiring pro-life crisis pregnancy centers to post information about how to obtain abortions, a requirement that the pro-life movement considers a direct infringement on free speech.
However, the pro-life side is also optimistic that the court will rule in its favor.
The legal battle is over a 2015 California law known as the FACT Act, which forces openly pro-life centers to prominently display information on how to get an abortion.
The sign reads: “California has public programs that provide immediate free or low-cost access to comprehensive family planning services (including all FDA-approved methods of contraception), prenatal care and abortion for eligible women.” It also provides contact information to learn more about abortions.
“This case really isn’t about abortion or Roe v. Wade. It’s about free speech. It’s a basic question about whether the government can compel private speakers to speak a message that they disagree with or, frankly, they just don’t want to say for any reason,” said Denise Harle, a legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, which is representing the plaintiff in the case, known as National Institute of Family Life Advocates vs. Becerra
“American’s can’t be forced by the government to promote messages that conflict with their beliefs. The first amendment guarantees that free speech means that Americans cannot be compelled to speak or forbidden to speak,” said Harle. “California has enacted a law forcing pro-life speakers to advertise for the abortion industry.”
Harle offered more details on what message the signs convey.
“The sign has to be in 48-point font in the waiting room. It actually gives a number to call,” she said. “The law says it has to be clear and conspicuous placement in multiple languages that tells them where to get a free or low-cost abortion.
“If they call that number, they will actually be referred to Planned Parenthood or another abortion clinic,” added Harle.
The FACT Act also makes advertising difficult for the pro-life facilities.
“The law also requires for certain centers to put in every single one of their advertisements this 29-word disclaimer in multiple languages and it makes it completely impossible for them to do internet advertising, newspaper ads, billboards,” said Harle.
In addition, Harle says the law applies only to explicitly pro-life pregnancy centers.
“It only applies to pro-life speakers, which I think is so concerning about this law. It exempts all other doctors. It exempts out all for-profit health care providers. And it exempts out the non-profit general community clinics if they aren’t primarily pregnancy focused,” said Harle.
Legally speaking, Harle says the law places a tremendous burden on the clinics.
“It interrupts the pro-life center’s message to women. Not only is it confusing, but it’s a severe burden on the consciences of these centers that exist solely to defend life because they believe life is precious and encourage childbirth. For the government to force them to promote abortion is just completely wrong,” said Harle.
Harle says working on this case has been a joy because of the pro-life convictions of the directors and volunteers at the centers. But she says they are wrestling with conscience issues over this law.
“This law just adds layer upon layer of burden. So not only are the clinic workers having their consciences burdened, they have a really serious decision about whether to work in a place that post signs promoting free abortion,” said Harle.
“Can you imagine having your whole existence being based on pro-life views and yet having to be a billboard for free and low-cost abortions,” she added.
It could also dry up resources for such centers.
“Donors are burdened with a conflict. What am I doing now if I’m supporting these centers but they’re having to advertise for abortion. Is this something I can continue to support?” said Harle.
At the Supreme Court Tuesday, the four liberal justices seemed to argue that pro-life centers ought to be required to inform patients of other options since that is the rule for abortion clinics as well.
The remaining justices seemed sympathetic to the argument that these signs conflict with the first amendment, with Justice Anthony Kennedy accusing the law of “mandating speech.”
Harle believes the oral arguments bode well for her clients.
“We’re very hopeful that we have several justices who agree that that’s a basic first amendment violation,” she said.
If the court sides with California, Harle says the consequences would be chilling.
“There almost seems to be no limit to what a government could do if it doesn’t like a certain viewpoint. If they don’t like a certain advocacy group or ideology and it’s going to impose these burdensome on them, that is going to silence and suppress free speech.
“Anyone on any side of any issue should be really concerned about a government that has that much power,” said Harle.