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, not to mention that the U.S. Supreme Court has already struck down such policies. Thankfully, pro-life sidewalk counselors decided to challenge this in court. And now they’re asking the Supreme Court to make it clear once again that these censorship zones are unconstitutional. Let’s take a look at their case.
Who: Pro-life Sidewalk Counselors
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 do this was being threatened.
In 2005, Pittsburgh passed an ordinance that allowed government officials to ban leafleting and other free speech around the facilities of abortionists, eye doctors, dentists, and any “therapeutic,” “healing,” or “health-building” treatment provider.
While it may seem odd for an ordinance to lump such different facilities together, the law’s hidden intent is evident. It targets pro-life counselors who stand on public sidewalks outside of abortion facilities.
How do we know? Because the city only applies the ordinance in front of abortion facilities. And while it prohibits pro-life speech in the censorship zones, it allows abortion facility employees to shout down and speak over pro-life 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.
That’s why Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) filed a lawsuit against the city.
When: September 2014—Present
ADF attorneys first challenged the Pittsburgh law in federal court in September 2014.
In 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.
The Third Circuit said in June 2016 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.
Despite this, the lower court issued another ruling upholding Pittsburgh’s anti-free speech zones in November 2017.
So ADF attorneys appealed to the Third Circuit in January 2018. Oral arguments for the case were held in February 2019. And in October 2019, the Third Circuit issued its ruling. While the Third Circuit recognized the constitutional problems with Pittsburgh’s law, the court 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.
But federal courts can’t simply rewrite local laws to save them from unconstitutionality. And that’s why, in March 2020, ADF asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear this case.
Where: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Pittsburgh adopted this ordinance in 2005. When Mayor Bill Peduto took office in 2014, he began enforcing this ordinance, which he originally voted for as a city councilman.
Why: To protect the freedom of speech.
Every American has the God-given right to speak freely—including pro-life counselors.
“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.”
The Bottom Line
Every American has the right to speak on public sidewalks—including pro-life sidewalk counselors.
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