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US Supreme Court declines to take case concerning Pittsburgh’s censorship zone law

Though flawed, 3rd Circuit decision left standing makes clear city ordinance doesn’t apply to pro-life sidewalk counselors
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WASHINGTON – The U.S. Supreme Court declined Monday to weigh in on a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, censorship-zone law similar to a Massachusetts law the high court struck down in 2014. Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys, who represent five sidewalk counselors challenging the law, asked the court to take the case, and a diverse array of groups, 17 states, and 97 members of Congress filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support.

The law at issue in Bruni v. City of Pittsburgh prohibits speech and advocacy—including prayer—in painted zones outside medical facility entrances. The city chose to paint and enforce such censorship zones on the sidewalk outside only two facilities in the entire metropolitan area—Pittsburgh’s two abortion facilities—targeting face-to-face conversations by pro-life sidewalk counselors.

Recognizing the constitutional problems with such a ban in light of the 2014 Supreme Court ruling in McCullen v. Coakley, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit last year claimed to narrow the law to say that the ban doesn’t apply to sidewalk counseling, only patrolling, picketing, or demonstrating. It then upheld the ban—contrary to what the same court ruled six years ago when it first considered Pittsburgh’s law and observed that “the Ordinance imposes the same kind of burden on speech” as the Massachusetts law the Supreme Court struck down in McCullen. Because the 3rd Circuit’s decision still allowed for some speech to be censored, ADF attorneys asked the Supreme Court to take the case.

“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 problem with the 3rd Circuit reinterpreting Pittsburgh’s law in order to save it, rather than rule against it for the obvious constitutional problems the court saw, is that Pittsburgh remains free to engage in censorship of constitutionally protected speech. We will be closely monitoring what the city does,” said ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot, who argued the case before the 3rd Circuit. “As Justice Thomas pointed out, the court should revisit the question of ‘buffer zones’ because of the serious limits they impose on free speech.”

ADF attorneys filed the lawsuit against Pittsburgh in 2014 on behalf of pro-life individuals who were prohibited from speaking or engaging in sidewalk counseling within the zones. The city banned their speech in the zone while allowing others to talk about the weather, sports, or practically anything else. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto has been enforcing the law, which he voted for as a city councilman in 2005.

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

  • 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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