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Appeals court rules Pittsburgh censorship zones can’t exclude pro-life sidewalk counselors

3rd Circuit ruling allows pro-life speech to resume on public sidewalks
Baby's Feet

PHILADELPHIA – The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit ruled Friday that Pittsburgh’s censorship zones ordinance can’t be used to muzzle the free speech of pro-life sidewalk counselors. Rather than strike down the ordinance, the court reinterpreted it so that it no longer applies to such counseling.

The court had previously expressed great concern over the zones and reinstated an Alliance Defending Freedom lawsuit challenging them until a district court ruled in favor of the city once again. ADF attorneys representing sidewalk counselors and other pro-life speakers then appealed to the 3rd Circuit a second time.

“As the 3rd Circuit has now held, the government can’t censor peaceful, pro-life conversation on public sidewalks. Citizens have the freedom to share a message of hope and compassion with any mother seeking to make an informed choice about her pregnancy,” said ADF Legal Counsel Elissa Graves. “Pittsburgh politicians aren’t at liberty to silence speech they dislike. As the U.S. Supreme Court recognized in last year’s NIFLA v. Becerra decision, ‘the people lose when the government is the one deciding which ideas should prevail.’”

In its latest opinion in Bruni v. City of Pittsburgh, the 3rd Circuit wrote, “the Ordinance, as properly interpreted, does not extend to sidewalk counseling—or any other calm and peaceful one-on-one conversations….”

In 2014, the 3rd Circuit found that “the Ordinance imposes the same kind of burden on speech” as one the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in McCullen v. Coakley. Following that ruling, ADF attorneys successfully challenged similar censorship zones in Madison, Wisconsin.

“The Supreme Court made clear in 2014 that free speech receives the highest protection on public sidewalks,” said ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot, who argued before the 3rd Circuit in February. “The First Amendment doesn’t allow the government to ban life-affirming expression simply because some pro-abortion politicians or activists demand it, and as the 3rd Circuit’s ruling concludes, Pittsburgh’s ordinance can’t be used to do that as written. No government can carve out public spaces where the Constitution doesn’t apply.”

ADF attorneys filed the lawsuit in 2014 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 has been 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.” Nonetheless, the 3rd Circuit said this language does not and cannot apply to pro-life sidewalk counselors.

Lawrence G. Paladin, Jr., one of more than 3,400 attorneys allied with ADF, is serving as local counsel in the case.

  • Pronunciation guide: Bruni (BROON’-ee), Theriot (TAIR’-ee-oh)

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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Kevin Theriot
Kevin Theriot
Senior Counsel
Kevin Theriot serves as senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom