A federal judge blocked New York City on Wednesday from enforcing a new law designed to stop some pregnancy centers from what the City Council concluded were deceptive practices meant to delay women from getting abortion services and emergency contraception. The city said it would appeal.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge William Pauley blocks a law that was supposed to go into effect Thursday. It would require pregnancy centers to disclose whether they have licensed medical staff and what they do to protect client privacy.
Abortion rights advocates say some centers try to deceive women by opening near offices that offer abortions and implying they will give referrals to women considering ending their pregnancies.
Two operators of facilities that offer pregnancy testing, ultrasounds and counseling and a few more that offer various pregnancy-related services but do not perform ultrasounds or physical examinations brought a lawsuit opposing the law. The plaintiffs cited moral and religious reasons to explain why they do not offer or provide referrals for abortions or emergency contraception.
The judge agreed with the plaintiffs that the new law seems unconstitutionally vague and may infringe upon First Amendment rights. He wrote that the plaintiffs had demonstrated that the law would "compel them to speak certain messages or face significant fines and/or closure of their facilities."
The centers faced fines of between $200 and $1,000 for first violations and between $500 and $2,000 for each additional violation. Three or more separate violations within two years could result in closure.
Pauley said offering free services such as pregnancy tests to further a religious belief does not result in a commercial transaction that might cause the centers to be judged under rules governing commercial speech, which receive less protection from the First Amendment. He said the city's argument "would represent a breathtaking expansion of the commercial speech doctrine."
The judge also wrote that a city argument that the plaintiffs engage in commercial speech because they are provided an audience to whom they can spread their beliefs "is particularly offensive to free speech principles."
He said that while the city apparently regards "an assembly of people as an economic commodity, this court does not. Under such a view, flyers for political rallies, religious literature promoting church attendance, or similar forms of expression would constitute commercial speech merely because they assemble listeners for the speaker."
Because the law "relates to the provision of emergency contraception and abortion — among the most controversial issues in our public discourse — the risk of discriminatory enforcement is high," the judge said. He noted that the city could not confirm that any centers had been prosecuted under anti-fraud statutes, another avenue that could be used if a facility is not accurately describing what it does.
CeCe Heil, a lawyer for the American Center for Law and Justice, which researched and argued the case along with lawyers from the Alliance Defense Fund and the Catholic Lawyers Association, called the ruling a "resounding victory."
"This law, which forces crisis pregnancy centers to adopt and express views about abortion and contraception that they strongly disagree with, is constitutionally flawed," Heil added.
"The ordinance threatens non-medical, pro-life pregnancy services centers with heavy fines and possible closure if they don't provide posted, printed, and oral notices crafted by the city that encourage women to go elsewhere," said the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative religious rights organization that represented two pregnancy centers and a maternity home in the case.
But City Council Speaker Christine C. Quinn said the ruling "is deeply disappointing and is a disservice to women." She promised an immediate appeal.
"Today's decision means that pregnancy service centers can continue deceiving women who seek their services. Equally troubling is that the centers will not be required to keep confidential the information collected from women who visit them," Quinn said.
Simone Ward, a Planned Parenthood of New York City spokesperson, said in a statement: "We are disappointed, but not discouraged by this ruling, and will stand by the New York City Council as they continue to fight to protect the health and safety of the men, women and teens we serve as well as of all New Yorkers."