Skip to content

How Pittsburgh Tried to Silence Pro-Life Sidewalk Counselors

Pro-life sidewalk counselors challenged a Pittsburgh law that prevented them from speaking freely.
Alliance Defending Freedom
Published
Revised
Pro-life sidewalk counselors challenged a Pittsburgh law that prevented them from speaking freely.

It is an American pastime and constitutional right to exercise free speech on public sidewalks.

But the people of Pittsburgh have been denied this right. City officials have ignored the First Amendment and created censorship zones around many businesses, including abortion facilities.

This is unconstitutional, and the U.S. Supreme Court has already struck down such policies. Thankfully, pro-life sidewalk counselors decided to challenge this in court. Let’s take a look at their case.

 

Who is Nikki Bruni?

Nikki Bruni was listening to the radio when the topic of abortion came up. She found herself deeply affected by the discussion, and it motivated her to address an issue that she realized was damaging many people.

Today, Nikki is a sidewalk counselor in the City of Pittsburgh.

Nikki and her colleagues provide an important pro-life witness by peacefully standing on sidewalks in front of abortion clinics. They quietly pray for the mothers and unborn children inside. When men and women walk to and from the clinic, they speak compassionately to them about the development of their child and offer to help them in any way they can.

But their right to freely speak and do sidewalk counseling like this was being threatened.

 

Bruni v. City of Pittsburgh

In 2005, Pittsburgh passed an ordinance that allowed government officials to ban leafleting and other speech within 15 feet of the facilities of abortionists, eye doctors, dentists, and any “therapeutic,” “healing,” or “health-building” treatment provider. When Mayor Bill Peduto took office in 2014, he began enforcing this ordinance, which he had voted for as a city councilman.

While it may seem odd for an ordinance to lump such different facilities together, the law’s intent is clear. It targets pro-life counselors who stand on public sidewalks outside of abortion facilities.

How do we know? Because the city only enforced the ordinance in front of abortion facilities. And while it prohibited pro-life speech in the censorship zones, it allowed abortion facility employees to shout down and speak over pro-life sidewalk counselors.

This clearly violates the freedom of speech, and it contradicts Supreme Court precedent from McCullen v. Coakley. In that case, the Court unanimously struck down a similar law in Massachusetts, saying that it violated the First Amendment rights of sidewalk counselor Eleanor McCullen.

That’s why Alliance Defending Freedom filed a lawsuit against the City of Pittsburgh.

 

Case timeline

  • September 2014: ADF attorneys first challenged the Pittsburgh law in federal court.
  • March 2015: The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania refused to halt the unfair law and partially dismissed the lawsuit. So, ADF attorneys appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
  • June 2016: The Third Circuit said that the lower court had failed to follow Supreme Court precedent. The court even said in its opinion that the Pittsburgh law “imposes the same kind of burden on speech” as the Massachusetts law struck down by the Supreme Court in McCullen.
  • November 2017: Despite the Third Circuit opinion, the lower court issued another ruling upholding Pittsburgh’s anti-free speech zones.
  • January 2018: ADF attorneys appealed to the Third Circuit again.
  • February 2019: Oral arguments for the case were held.
  • October 2019: The Third Circuit issued its ruling. While the court recognized the constitutional problems with Pittsburgh’s law, it claimed to narrow the law to say that the ban doesn’t apply to sidewalk counseling, only prayer or standing quietly while holding a sign or wearing buttons. It then upheld the ban as constitutional.
  • March 2020: ADF asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear this case, because federal courts can’t simply rewrite local laws to save them from unconstitutionality.
  • January 2021: The Supreme Court denied our petition, leaving the ruling from the Third Circuit in place.

 

Outcome

Every American has the God-given right to speak freely, including pro-life counselors.

“The government can’t silence speakers just because it doesn’t like what they have to say,” said ADF Senior Counsel and Vice President of Appellate Advocacy John Bursch.

“While we are pleased that Pittsburgh’s ordinance can’t be enforced against pro-life sidewalk counselors, the city shouldn’t be allowed to carve out space on public sidewalks and declare that certain topics and forms of speech are off limits there. As the Supreme Court declared as recently as 2018 in another ADF case, ‘the people lose when the government is the one deciding which ideas should prevail.’”

 

The bottom line

Every American has the right to speak on public sidewalks—including pro-life sidewalk counselors.

 

Learn more:

Alliance Defending Freedom
Non-profit organization
ADF is the world's largest legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, the sanctity of life, marriage and family, and parental rights.