In a close 5-4 decision issued on June 26, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the California state law aimed directly at pro-life pregnancy care centers who oppose abortion and offer women with unplanned pregnancies a life-giving alternative. The law, known as the Reproductive FACT Act, required the pro-life centers, which provide a variety of services such as ultrasounds, pregnancy tests, and counseling, to advertise government-funded free and low-cost abortions in their centers.
What’s the case about?
No person should be compelled by government to speak a message contrary to their beliefs. Yet that is exactly what the California legislature attempted here. Although the government had numerous ways to get its message out to the public, they chose the one avenue that would inflict the heaviest burden on people and organizations with a religious and/or moral belief against abortion.
Thankfully, the Supreme Court stood firm in a classic defense of free speech. To quote Justice Kennedy’s concurring opinion:
“Governments must not be allowed to force persons to express a message contrary to their deepest convictions. Freedom of speech secures freedom of thought and belief. This law imperils those liberties.”
Who are the parties?
“NIFLA” stands for National Institute of Family and Life Advocates. It is a national non-profit organization comprised of 1430 pro-life pregnancy resource centers across the country (110 in California that are subject to the FACT Act). These centers provide licensed medical services such as ultrasound and urine pregnancy testing, and/or unlicensed non-medical services such as furnishing diapers and maternity clothing, counseling and support groups to women in unplanned pregnancies. “Becerra” is Xavier Becerra, the current California Attorney General, the state’s chief law enforcement office.
What are the legal questions?
The constitutional issue at stake is, can California pass a law compelling pro-life pregnancy resource centers to promote abortion, or does that violate the First Amendment guarantee of free speech? Past decisions of the Supreme Court interpret the First Amendment as prohibiting government from “compelling” objectionable speech unless it is the least restrictive way to further a very important government purpose. This standard puts a high bar in favor of free speech that government laws rarely clear.
Why is this case important?
If the law had been upheld, the consequences for free speech would have been devastating. If government is free to force anyone it wants to convey a message, especially people who oppose the government’s views, then the First Amendment would be meaningless. The California law could have, ominously, foreshadowed a dark future for free speech rights. Picture, for example, your family being forced by law to put up a sign on your lawn that says: “We proudly support abortion!” or “We support Gay Pride!” You get the point. Thank God the California law was struck down.