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3rd Circuit reinstates lawsuit against Pittsburgh censorship zones

Appeals court highly critical of sweeping prohibition on free speech throughout city
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PITTSBURGH – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit reinstated an Alliance Defending Freedom lawsuit Wednesday against the city of Pittsburgh’s censorship zone law, saying “the Ordinance imposes the same kind of burden on speech” as one the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in 2014. The ordinance bans free speech around the facilities of abortionists and even eye doctors, dentists, and any “therapeutic,” “healing,” or “health-building” treatment providers.

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck down a similar Massachusetts law in McCullen v. Coakley, a case ADF attorneys and allied attorneys filed in 2008. Following that ruling, ADF attorneys successfully challenged an additional law in Madison, Wis., and obtained temporary relief against a New Hampshire statute.

“The government cannot muzzle speech just because pro-abortion politicians and special interests demand it,” said ADF Senior Counsel Matt Bowman, who argued before the 3rd Circuit last year. “The appeals court correctly applied what the Supreme Court made clear in the McCullen case: that free speech receives the highest protection on public sidewalks. Pittsburgh’s sidewalk counselors are now entitled to their day in court, and the city cannot justify squelching their peaceful offers of help to women.”

“This case calls for nothing more than a straightforward application of McCullen—the Ordinance imposes the same kind of burden on speech, the same less burdensome options are available, and the City has similarly failed to try or to consider those alternatives to justify its Ordinance…,” the 3rd Circuit wrote in its opinion. “The recent instruction from McCullen and the factual allegations of the Complaint combine to require that we vacate the District Court’s grant of the City’s motion to dismiss the Plaintiffs’ free speech claims…. We reverse so that the Plaintiffs’ claims may be aired and assessed by the standard that McCullen now requires.”

ADF attorneys filed the lawsuit, Bruni v. City of Pittsburgh, on behalf of pro-life individuals who haven’t been allowed to speak or engage in sidewalk counseling within the zones. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto is enforcing the law, which he voted for as a city councilman in 2005.

Under the ordinance, no one may “knowingly congregate, patrol, picket or demonstrate in a zone extending 15 feet from any entrance to the hospital or health care facility” that the city designates. Health care facilities broadly and vaguely include any “establishment providing therapeutic, preventative, corrective, healing and health-building treatment services on an out-patient basis by physicians, dentists and other practitioners.”

  • Pronunciation guide: Bruni (BROON’-ee), Bowman (BOH’-min)


Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.


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Matt Bowman
Matt Bowman
Senior Counsel, Director of Regulatory Practice
Matt Bowman serves as senior counsel and director of regulatory practice at Alliance Defending Freedom, where he focuses on the impact of administrative law on religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and family.