SAN FRANCISCO—A lawsuit challenging a San Francisco ordinance that bans "misleading" advertising by pro-life pregnancy centers will proceed after a federal judge upheld its "equal protection" claim that the law unfairly favors one viewpoint over another.
The Pregnancy Information and Disclosure Ordinance was enacted last year, allowing the city attorney to regulate pro-life pregnancy centers' use of billboard space and Google search ads to reach pregnant women. The law exempts any organization that offers abortions or refers women to abortion providers, leaving only two pregnancy centers—First Resort and Alpha Pregnancy Center—under threat of violation, a $500 penalty.
First Resort filed suit against San Francisco city and county, citing that the law violates their First Amendment right to free speech, among other allegations. Last week, Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong dismissed some of First Resort's claims regarding the ordinance's constitutional vagueness and preemption by state law. Left-leaning media including the Feminist Wire and The Huffington Post claimed this a small victory amid legal defeats of similar measures nationwide.
But First Resort director Paul Sluis also called the ruling a victory, noting the judge further narrowed the ordinance's language, while upholding their claim that the law violates the Constitution's Equal Protection Clause. Furthermore, the city has yet to file a motion disputing First Resort's free speech allegation, Sluis said. "They have essentially left alone our number one argument in this lawsuit. Either they know they don't have a case, or they plan to attack us later on."
First Resort will proceed with the case, filing amended complaints for those the judge dismissed.
Judges have recently struck down similar ordinances in four New York and Maryland cities that require pregnancy centers to post notices that they do not provide abortions or have licensed medical staff. Litigation is pending for another law in Austin, Texas.
The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which is representing these pregnancy centers, expects judges will continue to oppose these laws: "It would take a fundamental rewriting for the first amendment for the government to regulate the speech of a nonprofit industry receiving no federal funding," said Casey Mattox, a senior counsel for ADF.
First Resort, which has locations in San Francisco, Redwood City, and Oakland, offers "counseling and medical care to women who are making decisions about unplanned pregnancies," according to its website. A registered nurse is present during operating hours and an OB-GYN doctor oversees the three clinics.
The new law claims pregnancy center ads and information mislead women into thinking pregnancy centers provide medical care and offer abortions. According to the legislation introduced by City Attorney Dennis Herrera and Supervisor Malia Cohen, a woman "loses time crucial to the decision whether to terminate a pregnancy," which could jeopardize her chances for an abortion.
So far, the city has not enforced the regulations against First Resort or Alpha Pregnancy Center.
ADF's Mattox said the law is intended to scare women away: "Women who go to these centers don't think they are in a doctor's office ... this is really about the abortion industry viewing these centers as competition for women. They're taking away their clientele."