Government & Politics

Court rejects California law requiring abortion information at pregnancy centers

Anti-abortion centers that help pregnant women likely do not have to give those women information about low-cost access to abortions, the Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

Pregnancy crisis centers are generally nonprofit institutions associated with religious groups that provide free goods and services to pregnant women.

California enacted a law in 2015 mandating that those centers post signs or notices in waiting rooms that inform clients of other centers that offer “immediate free or low-cost access to comprehensive family planning services, prenatal care, and abortion, for eligible women.”

Centers that were not medically licensed also had to disclose that fact, under the law. The Supreme Court also overturned that provision in the 5-4 decision, saying the law likely violated the First Amendment right to free speech.

"California asserts a single interest to justify the licensed notice: providing low-income women with information about state-sponsored services," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the majority opinion. "Assuming that this is a substantial state interest, the licensed notice is not sufficiently drawn to achieve it."

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra responded quickly to the ruling on Twitter, saying the Supreme Court got it wrong.

"California does not stand for ethnic and religious discrimination," Becerra said. "We will continue to fight actions that unlawfully target people based on their background."

The author of the bill, Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, said he is consulting with Becerra to determine next steps.

"We will be reviewing the decision to figure out what our options are with next steps and I think it is possible that we will look at other legislative ensure that the lies end."

The National Institutes of Family and Life Advocates, which has ties to about 1,500 such centers throughout the country, filed the suit against California, saying the law forces its centers to become “abortion referral agencies.”

Advocates of the law said it did not prevent those centers from discouraging women from seeking abortions. They simply had to post the information so clients would be aware.

The law's backers also claimed some of the centers were posting misleading information about abortions, warning the procedure could lead to an increased risk of breast cancer. Or, advocates said, the centers purposely chose names that made them sound like centers that provided abortions services.

The issue before the court involved free speech, since private speech is more protected than the speech of commercial businesses. Commercial speech, such as advertisements, can be banned for being false or misleading. Private speech cannot be banned based on its accuracy.

The Supreme Court had to decide where the nonprofit pregnancy resource centers fall between those categories.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which upheld the California law in October 2016, classified notices as “professional speech,” which critics have derided as a term with no legal basis.

"This Court has not recognized 'professional speech' as a separate category of speech," Thomas wrote, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Anthony Kennedy and Neil Gorsuch. "Speech is not unprotected merely because it is uttered by 'professionals.'"

The Supreme Court's decision means the case will go back to the Ninth Circuit for further proceedings.

Angela Hart of The Sacramento Bee state Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.

Kate Irby: 202-383-6071; @KateIrby