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ADF to 3rd Circuit: Pittsburgh censorship zones violate free speech

ADF appeals ruling that upheld sweeping prohibition on free speech throughout city
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Attorney sound bites:  Elissa Graves  |  Matt Bowman

PITTSBURGH – Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys filed an appeal Thursday of a federal court’s decision that kept in place a Pittsburgh censorship zone ordinance. The ordinance allows the creation of hundreds of censorship zones throughout the city that ban leafleting and other free speech around the facilities of abortionists, eye doctors, dentists, and any “therapeutic,” “healing,” or “health-building” treatment services.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously struck down a similar law in McCullen v. Coakley, a case ADF attorneys and allied attorneys filed in 2008. ADF attorneys successfully challenged additional laws in Madison, Wis., and New Hampshire following the Supreme Court’s ruling.

“Americans, including those who are pro-life, have the freedom to speak on public sidewalks,” said ADF Litigation Counsel Elissa Graves. “As the U.S. Supreme Court noted just last year, this freedom has been a foundational element in American life since the nation began. Peaceful sidewalk counselors in Pittsburgh have the same freedoms as those involved in the case at the Supreme Court. Because of this, we are appealing the district court’s decision, which allows enforcement of Pittsburgh’s unconstitutional censorship zones to continue.”

On March 6, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania refused to halt the ordinance and partially dismissed the lawsuit, which ADF attorneys filed on behalf of pro-life individuals who can’t 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.

“The government cannot censor speech just because it doesn’t reflect some officials’ preferred views or the views of abortionists,” said ADF Senior Legal Counsel Matt Bowman. “The Supreme Court made that clear when it affirmed the long-recognized fact that public streets and sidewalks are places where free speech is highly protected. These kinds of censorship zones are clearly unconstitutional.”

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.”

“The ordinance therefore creates anti-speech zones on the entrances to an enormous number of facilities throughout Pittsburgh that provide any health care services,” the ADF lawsuit explained when it was filed in September 2014. “And because new health care facilities open in a variety of office buildings and zones, the Ordinance continually spawns new anti-speech zones on public sidewalks, streets, and other public ways throughout the City…. The Ordinance is an unconstitutional content- and viewpoint-based restriction in that it was enacted and is applied so as to restrict pro-life speech, but permits speech in favor of abortion or concerning topics and speakers not disfavored by the City of Pittsburgh.”

Lawrence G. Paladin, one of more than 2,500 private attorneys allied with ADF, is local counsel in the lawsuit, Bruni v. City of Pittsburgh, which now goes to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit.

  • 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.