This past week the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case — NIFLA v. Becerra — that could answer the question of whether forcing speech on certain professionals is a violation of the free speech clause of the First Amendment.
NIFLA is the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, which gives legal advice to pro-life pregnancy centers, and Becerra is Xavier Becerra, the attorney general of California.
At issue is a California law, the Reproductive FACT Act, that requires “crisis pregnancy centers” to post notices informing pregnant women about state-subsidized free or low-cost abortions.
The law also requires pro-life, religious-oriented unlicensed centers to place extensive disclaimers in large fonts and in as many as 13 languages in their ads and on billboards telling people about abortion services, significantly increasing their cost to advertise. The law exempts abortion providers, hospitals and other healthcare facilities.
The Ninth Circuit upheld the law.
The case could reverberate in this year’s Nevada gubernatorial election, because Attorney General Adam Laxalt, who is running for the Republican nomination to be governor, signed onto to an amicus brief in the case with 21 other states, challenging the law as an unconstitutional burden on free speech.
According to the donation-funded news website The Nevada Independent, the two leading Democratic gubernatorial candidates, Clark County Commissioners Steve Sisolak and Chris Giunchigliani, have sharply criticized Laxalt for taking sides in the lawsuit, calling him “anti-choice.” Sisolak and Giunchigliani are both donors to the website.
The amicus brief argues the California law is not “an informed consent” law, which the courts have upheld.
“Informed consent is required specifically so that the patient can assess the risks and consequences of a procedure that a doctor is seeking to perform. …” the brief in question argues. “In contrast, a State’s desire to compel clinics to disseminate information about the availability of state funding for procedures those clinics do not perform has nothing to do with allowing a patient to assess the risks and consequences of a medical procedure about to be performed.”
The targeted clinics provide pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, referrals and consultations, which involve little, if any, risk.
The brief concludes, “If there is evidence of wrongdoing on behalf of any of the medical clinics, California may unquestionably enforce those standards through the power of its regulatory authority, like any other State. But enforcing standards does not necessitate a blanket requirement compelling medical clinics to advertise state- subsidized services they do not provide.”
During oral arguments this past week, the questions asked by both liberal and conservative justices indicated they thought the law an overreach.
“If — if it’s about just ensuring that everyone has full information about their options, why should the state free-ride on a limited number of clinics to provide that information?” asked the court’s newest conservative member, Neil Gorsuch. He later added, “Well, but if you’re trying to educate a class of — of persons about their rights, it’s — it’s pretty unusual to force a private speaker to do that for you under the First Amendment.”
Conservative Justice Samuel Alito asked about California’s effort to create a new category of speech called professional speech, which would have lesser First Amendment protection than other speech.
“I mean, this case is very important in itself, but adopting this new category of speech would have far-reaching consequences. …” Alito said from the bench. “But just to take a couple of examples: Journalists are professionals. So would they be subject to this standard? How about economists? How about climate scientists? How about a fortune teller? The Fourth Circuit said that a fortune teller is a — is a professional. How about somebody who writes an advice column for parents? I mean, wouldn’t we be getting into very dangerous territory if we do this?”
Justice Elena Kagan, one the markedly liberal justices, questioned the way the law was “gerrymandered” to target a select group for the content of their speech.
“Because if it has been gerrymandered, that’s a serious issue,” she stated. “In other words, if, you know, it’s like, look, we have these general disclosure requirements, but we don’t really want to apply them generally, we just want to apply them to some speakers whose speech we don’t much like.”
The question to be resolved in California is about free speech, not abortion.
Laxalt did join a 25-state amicus brief a year ago defending a Texas law banning “dismemberment” abortions, in which fetuses are torn apart in the womb.
Thomas Mitchell is a longtime Nevada newspaper columnist. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also blogs at http://4thst8.wordpress.com/.