A California Judge overturned a controversial 2015 law Monday that required pro-life pregnancy centers to “disseminate to clients” a message promoting public programs with “free or low-cost access” to abortion and contraceptive services.
Pregnancy centers that failed to disseminate the message were liable for a fine of $500 for a first offense and $1,000 for each subsequent offense.
Riverside County Judge Gloria Trask ruled that the law violates the state constitution's guarantee of free speech.
"Compelled speech must be subject to reasonable limitation," Trask wrote in her opinion, saying the law "violates 'individual freedom of mind'" by compelling the clinic "to speak words with which it profoundly disagrees when the State has numerous alternative methods of publishing its message."
The 2015 law, dubbed the “Reproductive FACT Act” by its proponents has faced lawsuits from pro-life organizations across the state. This appeal, brought by Scott Scharpen of the Scharpen Foundation which runs a ‘Go Mobile for Life’ ultrasound unit, is unique in that it specifically appealed to the court with the argument that the law violates California’s 1849 Declaration of Rights, which guarantees the “individual freedom of mind.”
Trask agreed with that argument, writing that “compelled speech of a political or cultural nature is not the tool of a free government.”
“We are thrilled with Judge Trask’s ruling, which is a huge victory for free speech,” Scharpen said of the decision. “The whole notion of being compelled to share information with our patients about abortion availability, which is contrary to our mission and purpose, is fundamentally wrong.
It remains to be seen what effect the ruling will have on the pro-life groups, including Alliance Defending Freedom and National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA), who are waiting to see if the Supreme Court will take up their statewide case against the law.
The abortion advocacy group NARAL, which sponsored the law, was upset over Monday’s decision.
NARAL Pro-Choice California state director Amy Everitt said the decision was "a blow to California women, who deserve to have accurate information about their reproductive health options. The anti-choice groups behind these lawsuits are hell-bent on chipping away at our reproductive freedom and are using the courts to roll back historic protections for women and our families. It tells you all you need to know about these anti-choice groups’ agenda that they are suing to keep basic healthcare information from women.”
“The Reproductive FACT Act was a landmark law that balanced the compelling interest to share information that impacts women’s health with organizations’ ability to freely express their views,” she claimed. “Today, the court trampled on the will of California voters who overwhelmingly support the FACT Act.”
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra vowed to appeal the decision Tuesday.
“Information is power, and all women should have access to the information they need when making personal healthcare decisions,” Becerra commented. “The Reproductive FACT Act ensures that women in California receive accurate information about their healthcare options. The California Department of Justice will do everything necessary to protect women’s healthcare rights."