This issue should have been settled in 2014. But apparently the City of Pittsburgh wasn’t paying attention to the U.S. Supreme Court that year.
And Pittsburgh wasn’t the only one not paying attention. Last week, a federal district court once again upheld Pittsburgh’s censorship zone ordinance, which bans leafleting and other free speech around the facilities of abortionists, eye doctors, dentists, and any “therapeutic,” “healing,” or “health-building” treatment services.
There are a few problems with this ruling.
1. It is unconstitutional to ban speech just because pro-abortion interests don’t like it.
This law is directly targeted at pro-life advocates who stand on public sidewalks outside of abortion clinics to talk to the women going inside, to offer them help and hope. This is clear because the ordinance prohibits this type of speech, but allows speech in favor of abortion. It’s unconstitutional to censor speech based on its content and viewpoint.
“Americans have the freedom to talk to whomever they please on public sidewalks,” points out ADF Legal Counsel Elissa Graves. “That includes peaceful pro-lifers who just want to offer information and help to women who would like to know their options.”
2. In 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that these types of censorship zones are unconstitutional.
Alliance Defending Freedom represented a sidewalk counselor Eleanor McCullen against a similar law in Massachusetts. That law instituted a 35-foot “buffer zone” around all abortion centers in the state, where pro-life advocates such as Eleanor were not allowed to stand. That meant instead of approaching the men and women entering the center with compassion and kindness, they had to shout to get their attention. And in Boston, where Eleanor lived, sometimes 35 feet meant the law pushed her in the street or on the opposite side of the street.
After six years of litigation, the Supreme Court unanimously struck down this Massachusetts law, stating that the law imposed “serious burdens” on pro-life speech.
3. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit specifically ruled that the Supreme Court’s ruling applies to this case.
In 2016, the appeals court ruled that “the [Pittsburgh] Ordinance imposes the same kind of burden on speech” as one the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in 2014, and it sent the case back to the district court.
“The government can’t stifle free speech simply because some pro-abortion politicians or activists demand it,” said ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot. “The district court should have ruled in accordance with the appeals court, which correctly applied what the Supreme Court made clear three years ago—that free speech receives the highest protection on public sidewalks.”
It is likely that ADF will appeal this ruling to defend the free speech rights of pro-life advocates in Pittsburgh. No special interest should be able to use the government to ban speech they don’t like.
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