In a pivotal free speech decision, the Supreme Court struck down a 2015 California ruling that forced pregnancy centers to inform clients about free or low-cost abortion services.
The Supreme Court ruled against government-compelled speech in National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra and affirmed that the government cannot force citizens to express messages with which they disagree.
“No one should be forced by the government to express a message that violates their convictions, especially on deeply divisive subjects such as abortion,” said Alliance Defending Freedom President, CEO, and General Counsel Michael Farris, who argued on behalf of NIFLA before the Supreme Court in March.
In the 5-4 decision, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the majority opinion that “California cannot co-opt the licensed facilities to deliver its message for it.”
“If California’s goal is to educate low-income women about the services it provides, then the licensed notice is ‘wildly underinclusive,’” Thomas added, quoting a 2011 decision in the case Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association.
“In this case, the government used its power to force pro-life pregnancy centers to provide free advertising for abortion,” added Farris. “The Supreme Court said that the government can’t do that, and that it must respect pro-life beliefs.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions agreed with the decision. “Speakers should not be forced by their government to promote a message with which they disagree, and pro-life pregnancy centers in California should not be forced to advertise abortion and undermine the very reason they exist,” Sessions said in a statement.
Pro-life centers forced to promote abortion
The California law, AB 775, required licensed medical centers that offer free, pro-life help to pregnant women to post or distribute a disclosure saying that California provides free or low-cost abortion and contraception services.
The disclosure was also required to include a phone number for a county office that refers women to Planned Parenthood and others in the abortion industry.
Additionally, the law forced unlicensed pregnancy centers to add large disclosures in multiple languages about their non-medical status in advertisements, which obscured their pro-life speech. Failure to comply carried civil fines up to $1,000 US per violation.
Tolerance and respect
“Tolerance and respect for good-faith differences of opinion are essential in a diverse society like ours,” Farris added. “They enable us to peacefully coexist with one another. If we want to have freedom for ourselves, we have to extend it to others.”
“The right of free speech protected in the First Amendment not only includes the right to speak, but also the right to not be compelled by government to speak a message with which one disagrees and which violates one’s conscience,” said Thomas Glessner, NIFLA President.
“The court correctly found that the California law clearly offends this principle. We are very pleased with the court’s decision and for what it means for the many pro-life centers that serve and empower women in California and throughout the country.”
— CNJ staff report