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Federal Judge Upholds San Francisco Ban on Misleading, False Ads by Crisis Pregnancy Centers

Federal Judge Upholds San Francisco Ban on Misleading, False Ads by Crisis Pregnancy Centers

February 24, 2015 — A federal judge on Friday rejected a lawsuit challenging a 2011 San Francisco ordinance (212-11) that bars antiabortion-rights crisis pregnancy centers from using misleading or false advertising, the San Francisco Chronicle reports (Egelko, San Francisco Chronicle, 2/23).

Background

The ordinance prohibits CPCs from using advertising that "mislead[s] women contemplating abortion into believing that their facilities offer abortion services and unbiased counseling." The measure applies to limited-services pregnancy centers that do not offer emergency contraception or abortion services or provide referrals to providers that do.

In October 2012, a San Francisco judge dismissed a previous lawsuit brought by First Resort, a CPC operator, challenging the ordinance as unconstitutionally vague (Women's Health Policy Report, 10/9/12).

In the latest case, First Resort challenged the ordinance in federal court as a violation of free speech.

First Resort's online and print advertisements describe the CPC as offering "abortion information, resources and compassionate support for women facing the crucial decisions that surround unintended pregnancies and are considering abortion." However, the advertisements do not include a mention of First Resort's goal, stated in its articles of incorporation, to "build an abortion-free world."

Ruling Details

U.S. District Judge Saundra Brown Armstrong in the ruling wrote that the city ordinance "only restricts false and misleading commercial speech, which is not protected by the First Amendment."

First Resort had argued that its advertisements were not "commercial speech" and, therefore, not subject to government regulation -- because it provides its services at no cost. However, Brown Armstrong wrote that the ads are "economically motivated" because attracting clients is "critical to (First Resort's) fundraising efforts."

Further, the judge noted that First Resort pays for a "keyword" service via Google to advertise to women who are searching online for abortion information.

Brown Armstrong added that the ordinance still allows the CPC to provide women with information and express its opinions. She wrote that the ordinance only prohibits First Resort's ability to "lure prospective clients into patronizing them through the use of false or misleading advertising."

Reaction

City Attorney Dennis Herrera, whose office defended the ordinance, said the decision helps to make sure that "indigent women facing an unexpected pregnancy are not harmed by false or misleading advertising."

First Resort, which is now known as Third Box Pregnancy Clinics in the Bay Area, said in response to the decision that the ordinance is "a discriminatory and unnecessary infringement on constitutional rights," adding that the ruling "could endanger the free-speech rights of all nonprofit organizations." The organization said it had not decided whether it will appeal (San Francisco Chronicle, 2/23).