Free speech rules in Maryland pro-life center case

by Sarah Padbury
Posted 5/19/14, 01:50 pm

A Maryland case set an important precedent earlier this month for at least five lawsuits against pregnancy resources centers around the country. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a county could not force PRCs to post signs in their waiting rooms.

In Febraury 2010, Montgomery County, Md., adopted a resolution requiring pregnancy resource centers to conspicuously post signs in their waiting rooms announcing they did not have a licensed healthcare provider on staff and the Montgomery County Health Officer encouraged women who might be pregnant to consult with one. The law did not apply to pro-abortion centers, such as Planned Parenthood, even if non-medical professionals offered counseling there.

Centro Tepeyac, a center located in Silver Spring, Md., filed a complaint asserting the new law violated their First Amendment right to free speech and the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. Executive Director Mariana Vera noted pregnancy is more than just a medical condition; it requires holistic care, which is how Centro Tepeyac assists women.

“The resolution chills and burdens the free speech rights of Centro Tepeyac by forcing us to suggest to our clients that we are not qualified to talk with them or to provide them with assistance,” Vera  said.

In March 2011, a federal district court reached a split decision, striking down the rule for pregnancy resource centers to announce they did not have a medical professional on staff, but upholding the requirement to post the recommendation that pregnant women see a licensed provider. Both parties appealed, and in June 2012, a three-judge panel at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled in favor of Centro Tepeyac. “To be sure, Montgomery County is entitled to believe that pregnancy is first and foremost a medical condition, but it may not compel unwilling speakers to express that view,” the court ruled, stating the county had no legal right to force centers to post either statement.

After the full appeals court ruled in favor of Centro Tepeyac in a rehearing in July 2013, both sides asked the court for a summary judgment to settle the case permanently and avoid future litigation. On March 7, the court issued a summary judgment in favor of Centro Tepeyac, and the county announced on May 6 it would not appeal.

“The critical flaw for the county is the lack of any evidence that the practices of [pregnancy resource centers] are causing pregnant women to be misinformed, which is negatively affecting their health,” the ruling stated. Centro Tepeyac argued effectively that the new law was “solution in search of a problem, a condition that does not justify compelled speech.”

The summary judgment is good news for many centers in other states that are fighting similar ordinances to post signs in their waiting rooms. Pro-abortion advocates are backing legislation that requires such signage in San Francisco, Baltimore, New York City, and Austin, Texas.

“Pregnancy centers, which offer real help and hope to women, shouldn’t be punished by political allies of abortion sellers,” said Matt Bowman, Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Legal Counsel and co-counsel in the case. “The government cannot resort to coercing or shutting down someone else’s speech in violation of the First Amendment in order to achieve its political goals.”

Sarah Padbury

Sarah is a writer, editor, and adoption advocate. She is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Sarah and her husband live with their six teenagers in Castle Rock, Colo.

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