Posts Tagged ‘New York City Council’

A Major Victory for Life and for Free Speech

Thursday, July 14th, 2011

I have blogged a number of times about Intro 371, the New York City bill that targeted pregnancy centers for unfair and discriminatory regulations, with an aim towards silencing them and putting them out of business.

Pro-lifers from our city, and leaders of national pro-life groups all lobbied very hard to prevent the passage of that bill.  At a public hearing, and in repeated communications with the Council, we warned them that the bill was unconstitutional.  But they didn’t care.  Even when two courts in Maryland struck down similar bills as being unconstitutional, they were undeterred.  Spurred on by the abortion industry and the anti-life ideologues of NARAL, Planned Parenthood, and the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Council heedlessly went forward with the bill, and the mayor imprudently signed it into law.

A lawsuit was filed by several pregnancy centers, challenging the law.  And today, just days before the law was to go into effect, the court issued its ruling — a preliminary injunction, barring the implementation of the law.

The case isn’t over — it still has to be fully litigated.  But in the meantime, this iniquitous law will not go into effect.  This is a great victory for the pro-life cause, and for free speech.

The court accepted all the same constitutional arguments that the pro-lifers presented at the public hearing last fall.  It found that the law was an infringement upon the free speech rights of the centers and their staffs, and that it was also so vague that it created a grave risk of being arbitrarily enforced.

Most importantly, the court utterly rejected the City’s arguments that the speech of the pregnancy centers could be regulated as if it was “commercial speech”, a category of speech that can be subjected to fairly broad regulation by the government.  Instead, the court held that the speech of the centers was to be given the highest degree of protection under the Constitution, and that laws infringing upon their speech could only be valid if they pass muster under the extremely stringent “strict scrutiny” standard — which few laws can survive.

In fact, the court rebuked the City for its position, saying:

Defendant’s second argument — that Plaintiffs engage in commercial speech because they are provided an audience to whom they can espouse their beliefs — is particularly offense to free speech principles… that proposition would permit the Government to inject its own message into virtually all speech designed to advocate a message to more than a single individual and thereby eviscerate the First Amendment’s protections.

Even better, the court called out the New York Civil Liberties Union for their failure to defend the free speech rights of the centers. The court said,

Given the New York Civil Liberties Union’s (“NYCLU’s) usual concern for First Amendment rights, its amicus brief supporting Defendants’ expansive view of the commercial speech doctrine is puzzling.

True, one might expect the NYCLU to be unyielding in the defense of anyone’s First Amendment rights.  But they are in the grips of such an uncompromising pro-abortion ideology that they cannot conceive that the speech of pro-lifers deserves protection.  This is not the first time that their hypocrisy has been put on display, but it may be one of the first times a court took the trouble to note it.

Pro-lifers espouse a counter-cultural message that is sternly disapproved by the elites who deign to govern and advise us (e.g, the editorial board of the New York Times).  Legislatures and courts across the nation have expressed this disapproval by restricting the rights of pro-lifers to speak to women outside of abortion clinics, to give prayerful witness outside those clinics, and to offer alternatives to abortion.  It is a constant battle to defend our rights against these forces.

For once at least — and in New York City of all places! — a court got it right, and has recognized that pro-lifers have the same constitutional rights as any other citizen.

Congratulations to those who fought this bill before the Council, to the fine attorneys at the Alliance Defense Fund and the American Center for Law and Justice who pursued the lawsuit so ably, and to the pregnancy centers that kept up the fight.

I have a friend who likes to recall the story of Gideon from the Book of Judges.  Hopelessly outnumbered by a mighty foe, he trusted the Lord and was victorious.   Yes, indeed, all praise and glory to Him who never fails to comes to the aid of his people in need.

How We Got Here from There

Saturday, March 5th, 2011

The New York City Council has now passed Intro 371, the bill that that singles out pregnancy resource centers for harsh and discriminatory regulation.  The bill, which will soon be signed into law by the Mayor, is bitterly — and correctly — resented by pro-lifers because it is biased against the centers because of their pro-life beliefs, it is based on a foundation of falsehood, and it violates their right to free speech.  The bill will be challenged in court on constitutional grounds, and there is good reason to expect that the courts will strike it down.

This was certainly a significant blow to the pro-life community, and particularly to the pregnancy centers who do so much work to help women in need.  They feel justifiably hurt and threatened by the animosity and unfairness of the City government.  If this bill is upheld in court, it will make their work much more difficult, and will leave them at risk of discriminatory enforcement by a hostile government.

Having said that, though, we can learn some things if we look back over the history of this bill.

The Original Bill — Where We Started

It’s worth remembering that the first version of the bill, which was introduced in October, was very, very bad:

  • Who was covered — The definition of what kind of facilities would be covered by the bill was vague and poorly defined.  As a result, there was reason to believe that it would reach not just the pregnancy service centers, but also agencies like Catholic Charities, and even convents of the Sisters of Life.
  • Signage/Disclosure requirements — The bill would have forced these facilities to post signs and re-write all their advertising and promotional literature in order to notify people that they did not refer for abortions or contraception.  These requirements were both intrusive and unprecedented — no other organization in the City has to disclose what services they do not perform, and no other organization has to edit its advertising to satisfy government bureaucrats.
  • Penalties — The penalty provisions were very severe.  Violations could be punished by ruinous fines, and the centers could even be closed by the police — penalties that are heavier than those imposed for any other sign requirement under New York City or State law.  The center would also not be given any warning of a potential violation, nor would they be given an opportunity to cure the deficiency — first time a center would learn about a problem was when they received a citation for a violation.
  • Reporting of child abuse — Unbelievably, the bill would prohibit the centers from reporting child abuse or rape — any worker who did report those offenses to the police would be subject to fines or civil lawsuits.  This was in many ways the worst single component of the bill.
  • Clearly, the pro-life community could not let such a bill be passed without making an effort to defeat it, or at least to mitigate the potential harms.   However, we had to face an unpleasant political reality — this bill was a major objective for the pro-abortion movement, and there was every reason to believe that the sponsors had enough votes to pass it at any time.  It was going to be an uphill battle to defeat, delay, or change Intro 371.

    Over the next few months, a sustained lobbying effort was made by the pro-life community and the Church.  The media was used to get our message out, grassroots supporters were mobilized to contact their Council members, and direct contacts were made with Council members.  The consistent message was that there was no factual basis for the bill, the signage/disclosure requirements were unfair and unduly burdensome, the prohibition on reporting child abuse was irrational, and the penalties were grossly disproportionate.

    The Final Bill

    At the end of January, a federal district court in Maryland struck down a Baltimore law that was virtually identical to the original version of Intro 371.  We hoped that this would either stop, or significantly delay, the bill’s momentum.  Unfortunately, the Council was still determined to pass their bill, although they plainly had to modify it to at least give the appearance of complying with the Baltimore decision.

    When the final bill was released, there had been some very significant modifications.

  • Who was covered — The final bill contained a definition of that focused primarily on centers offering medical services — in particular, sonograms and pregnancy tests.  Some organizations and facilities that would have been included in the original bill — such as Catholic Charities, the Sisters of Life, and some of the crisis pregnancy centers that just offer counseling — will not be covered.  Other facilities, though, particularly those organized under a medical model, will still have to comply.
  • Signage/Disclosure requirements — There were several changes in the final bill.  Centers will be required to post signs, and change their advertisements to notify people if they don’t have a medical professional on staff, and whether they provide or refer for abortion, emergency contraception, and prenatal care.  There’s an additional requirement that center workers provide this disclosure any time a client requests those services.
  • Penalties — Nothing was changed to mitigate the penalties.
  • Reporting of child abuse — The final draft included language that would permit pregnancy center staff to report child abuse and rape to law enforcement authorities. This is very significant — it eliminated the single worst part of the original bill, which would have imposed draconian penalties on those who were protecting children from exploitation.
  • The result was that, while there were some improvements, Intro 371 was still a terrible bill.  Most significantly, though, nothing had been done to protect the bill from the argument that it violates the First Amendment rights of the centers and their staff.  In my opinion, the entire structure of the bill, along with several specific provisions, are fatally flawed, and will provide fertile ground for the pregnancy centers’ attorneys when they file their lawsuit to strike it down. The City’s attorneys are going to have their hands full defending this.

    The Way Forward

    While the passage of the bill has to be read as a defeat for the pro-life movement, there are some positive things that can be taken away.  The emergence of the seeds of an ecumenical coalition of interfaith pro-life leaders is very encouraging, and will have to be nurtured.  The importance of the pregnancy centers was highlighted, ironically, by the amount of effort that the pro-abortion movement spent in trying to harm them.  They are literally the front lines of the struggle to promote a culture of life, and to help pregnant women choose life.  As a community we need to rededicate ourselves to supporting them.

    In the end, though, I am left to wonder about the deeper meaning of it all.  I believe  that God sometimes allows misfortune, failure, and defeat to befall us so that we may learn.  One of the key lessons is to trust Him more, and me less.  Another is that He wishes us to constantly evaluate our hearts and our actions to make sure that they conform to His will, that they reflect a loving attitude to friend and foe alike, and that they give witness to His love for all his children.

    I need to be constantly reminded that it’s not my will, but His will, that has to be done.

    I was present at the final Council vote, and afterwards I was pretty downhearted.  After I emailed the result back to the Office, Sr. Lucy replied with a comment by St. Augustine, which had been in that day’s Office of Readings.  I can’t think of a better way to summarize the key lesson that I need to take away from this experience:

    “Your best servant is he who is intent not so much on hearing his petition answered, as rather on willing whatever he hears from You.”

    A Major Pro-Life Victory

    Saturday, January 29th, 2011

    In Friday, January 28, a Federal District Court Judge in Maryland issued a decision that is a major victory for pro-lifers and for free speech rights.

    The case involved an ordinance passed by the City of Baltimore that was aimed at silencing and, ultimately, closing down pro-life pregnancy support centers.  The basic structure of the Baltimore law was to require pregnancy centers to post signs proclaiming that they did not make referrals for abortion or contraception.  The centers, backed by the Archdiocese of Baltimore, fought back, arguing that this requirement violated their free speech rights under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

    In the ruling, the District Court completely agreed with the pregnancy centers and issued a permanent injunction, barring any enforcement of the law.  The decision made some important points about these kinds of laws:

  • Compelled Speech — At the heart of the right to free speech is the right to be free of compulsion to say things that are contrary to your beliefs.  This means that the government cannot force you to say things because they disagree with your position on issues.  The court found that the Baltimore law violated this basic principle of Constitutional Law, because it forced the pregnancy centers, under pain of fines, to say things about abortion and contraception that they would not otherwise say.
  • Lack of Viewpoint Neutrality — Also central to the First Amendment is the idea that the government may not use its power to take sides in a debate between people who disagree, favoring one side over the other by imposing penalties on the “disfavored” position.  The court also held that the Baltimore law failed this test, because the sign requirement was imposed only on those centers that opposed abortion.
  • Bogus Factual Premise — To enact a law that infringes upon someone’s First Amendment rights, the government must show that there is a compelling state interest.  The alleged interest behind these laws is the notion, promoted by abortion proponents, that pregnancy centers routinely lie and distort facts.  The court found that the Baltimore law failed this test too, because the pro-abortion side had failed to present any convincing evidence of systematic deceptive practices that could not be addressed by other means (e.g., false advertising laws).
  • This court victory is not just significant for Baltimore, but for all pro-lifers across the nation, particularly here in New York.  That Baltimore law was part of a nation-wide strategy by pro-abortion forces and the abortion industry.  We are currently facing a similar bill here in the New York City Council, Intro 371.

    The essential structure and premise of New York’s Intro 371 is identical to the Baltimore law:  sign and disclaimer requirements compelling speech by pregnancy centers that do not promote abortion, a lack of viewpoint neutrality that is designed to “disfavor” only those centers that do not promote abortion, and a complete lack of any proof that there is a pattern of systematic — or any — deception being practiced by these centers here in New York.

    And so, the Federal District Court has posed a serious question to the New York City Council:  Will you persist in passing a law that you now know to be unconstitutional?

    Can You Call it a Hearing if Nobody is Listening?

    Thursday, November 18th, 2010

    On Tuesday, I appeared as a witness at the hearing held by the Women’s Issues Committee of the New York City Council.  The committee was supposed to be taking evidence and evaluating the merits of Intro 371, the unfair and discriminatory bill that would regulate pregnancy resource centers. (For more information about the bill, click here)

    In reality, the “hearing” was little more than a demonstration of what happens when ideological obsession, duplicity, and raw political power intersect.

    The tone for the day was set at the beginning, when the lead sponsor of the bill declared that it was all about “truth in advertising”.  She and other sponsors of the bill went on to slander the centers by falsely alleging that their entire purpose was to mislead pregnant women into believing that they are medical centers, in order to deny them “the full range of reproductive health services.”

    Yet there was no evidence about any false statements in any advertising, and, in fact, neither the Council nor any public agency had ever conducted an inquiry into the content of the centers’ advertising.  There was no evidence that any woman had been misled or harmed in any way by visiting the centers.  There was no evidence that any center had ever held itself out to be a medical facility.  There was no evidence that any of the centers had ever revealed any private information.

    No evidence.  None.

    If this were a courtroom, the case for the bill would have been laughed at and summarily dismissed.

    All that was offered in support of this bill were the bald allegations by the real sponsors of the bill — NARAL, Planned Parenthood, the New York Civil Liberties Union, and the hive of radical pro-abortion advocates — about how the centers allegedly misrepresent themselves to be medical facilities.  This was their entire “case”, together with a blindness to the scientific and clinical evidence of negative side effects of abortion (including an increased risk of breast cancer, and post-abortion trauma), and imaginary allegations of deception (including the laughable statement by a NYCLU staff member that the mere name of one of the centers, “EMC”, sounded to her like a medical office).  Underlying it all was the bizarre attitude by the sponsors that the only way to prevent abuses that have never occurred is to drag private citizens under the power of government regulation.

    To give you an idea of the absurdity of the hearing, the first witnesses were from two New York City Government agencies.  They gave official support to the bill, even though neither agency had regulatory authority over the centers, neither had ever conducted an investigation into the centers or had received any complaints about them, and they openly professed ignorance about what the centers did.  In fact, the representative of the Health Department was so woefully unprepared that she didn’t even know how many abortions take place in New York City every year.  (Psst.  Health Department?  It’s about 89,000.  All you have to do is look at the report your own department puts out.  You can do it — it’s not that hard.)

    Here’s another indication of the ideological blindness of the committee, and their lack of genuine concern for women’s health.  I testified about the provisions of the bill that would require the centers to keep client information confidential.  This provision would prevent the centers from notifying the authorities if they had reason to believe that a teenager had been sexually abused or raped.  The reaction by the sponsors when they learned that their bill would shield rapists and child abusers?  Silence.  After all, why let facts get in the way of ideology and lust for power?

    There were some bright spots in the hearing.  Many pro-lifers sat for hours in a hot, crowded room to give witness to the wonderful work being done by these centers.  One Councilmember, Daniel Halloran, was prepared for the hearing and asked intelligent, searching and even-handed questions.  Stalwart defenders of life like Chris Slattery, Chris Bell, and Teresa Bonapartis put the lie to the Council’s prejudices against the centers and demonstrated what true concern for women was like.  Excellent lawyers from national organizations, like the American Center for Law and Justice, gave learned testimony about how the bill would violate the free speech rights of the centers and their staffs.

    Not that the Committee members cared about our side of the bill.  In most cases, they didn’t even bother to disguise their disinterest and disdain for the pro-life witnesses, rudely chatting among themselves and with staff instead of paying attention.  And they called it a “hearing”.

    The Committee will now take the bill under consideration, and may vote on it as early as this December, with action by the full Council to follow.  All citizens who care about free speech and the defense of life should contact the Council to let them know what they think of this prejudiced, ideological power-grab of a bill.

    An Attack on Pro-Life Pregnancy Centers

    Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

    A bill has been introduced in the New York City Council (Intro. 371) that singles out pregnancy resource centers for harsh and discriminatory regulation.

    The targets of this bill include Catholic Charities and a number of crisis pregnancy centers, all of which help pregnant women in need. These agencies offer services to poor expectant mothers who want help in having their baby. They provide spiritual, material and emotional support, and both before and after the babies are born. All provide these services completely free of charge — and most receive no federal, state, or city tax dollars to support their work.

    Here are some of the lowlights of this terrible bill:

  • This bill would violate constitutional guarantees of free speech by forcing these agencies to post signs and change the wording of their advertisements to describe what services they don’t provide (referrals for abortion and contraception).
  • If the City government isn’t satisfied with the wording of these signs, ads and websites, the pregnancy centers can receive heavy fines (up to $2,500), they can be closed down by the police, and their staff can go to jail for six months.
  • The confidentiality provisions of the bill are written in a way that would prevent pregnancy center staff from reporting child abuse — from even notifying a pregnant teen’s parents that she was sexually abused.
  • No other business or organization in the City has to face such unfair regulations.
  • No other organization can be closed down, or have their staff thrown in jail, merely for failing to post signs.
  • There are far more abortion clinics in the City than pregnancy centers, yet none of them would be required to post signs or advertise the services that they don’t provide — like referrals for adoption, help in nurturing the baby to birth, and support to mothers with newborns.
  • This bill is the product of a national campaign by abortion advocates to shut down pro-life organizations that help pregnant women who are seeking alternatives to abortion. These powerful and influential pro-abortion organizations are enlisting the City Council to show favoritism to their position on abortion, and to silence those who disagree.
  • Make no mistake about it. The only reason that the City Council is considering this bill is that they disapprove of what pro-lifers are saying and doing — opposing abortions.

    A hearing was held today before the Women’s Issues Committee of the City Council. Many pro-life groups gave testimony. I testified too, and I’ll have more to say about the hearing in my next post.

    If you’d like more information about the bill, click here.  If you’d like to find out who your City Council representative is, to let them know what you think about this bill, click here.