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4th Circuit Hears appeal of decision overturning laws targeting crisis pregnancy centers

by | Dec 7, 2012

By Dave Andrusko

Judge Paul V. Niemeyer

The relentless assault against the free speech rights of pregnancy centers was at the heart of a nearly three hour back and forth yesterday before the  U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond.

At issue were ordinances passed by the Montgomery County Council and the Baltimore City Council in 2009-10. These assaults are led by NARAL Pro-Choice America whose fingerprints were everywhere and of which NARAL is proud to boast.

The Montgomery ordinances required what were described as “limited service pregnancy centers” to post notices that they had no licensed medical staff and advising women to find “a licensed health care provider.”

The Baltimore City Council ordinance was even more odious. Its law required pregnancy centers to display signs stating they do not offer abortions or birth control. The Council offered a rationale favored by NARAL: that such centers had provided misleading information and the Council had a vested interest in protecting the public health by ensuring honest advertising of services.

In June a three-judge panel earlier this year overturned both ordinances, a decision which the full circuit reviewed Thursday. (See www.nationalrighttolifenews.org/news/2012/07/a-more-in-depth-look-at-an-important-win-by-women-helping-centers.)

One of the key findings was that no evidence had been offered that pregnancy centers had “deceived women.” As Judge Paul Niemeyer wrote almost indignantly,

“Here, the record establishes, at most, only isolated instances of misconduct by pregnancy centers generally, and, as the City concedes, none by the [Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns] itself. Indeed, the record contains no evidence that any woman has been misled into believing that any pregnancy center subject to Ordinance 09-252 was a medical clinic or that a woman in Baltimore delayed seeking medical services because of such a misconception. The City instead cites allegations of deceptive practices occurring in other locations or second-hand reports of ‘stories about harassment.’”

Mariana Vera, the executive director of Centro Tepeyac, which challenged the Montgomery ordinance, reiterated the point yesterday telling the Washington Post “that despite the reports by NARAL and others, county officials have been unable to find a Centro Tepeyac participant who said she was deceived.”

Compelled speech and viewpoint discrimination were two frequently broached topics Thursday.

Judge Niemeyer, who had written the majority opinion for the panel, told county attorney Clifford L. Royalty, “I’m troubled by the notion that you believe anything can be compelled to be said, even if it’s accurate,” adding, “We have a fundamental right not to be told what to say when performing a legal service.”

According to the Associated Press, Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III “said he was troubled that the law only targets anti-abortion centers, thus raising the question of viewpoint discrimination. ‘Are they engaging in any sort of medical practice or doing anything that poses a risk?’ Wilkinson asked. ‘If you can’t point to some harmful procedure, doesn’t that go a little too far?’”

There are other challenges to similar laws working their way through the legal pipeline. One is from Austin, Texas, another from New York City, and a third from San Francisco.