On Tuesday the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 10-1 for final passage of Supervisor Malia Cohen and City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s plainly unconstitutional ordinance known as “False Advertising by Limited Services Pregnancy Centers.”
San Francisco has only two pregnancy care centers subject to this bill, which specifically targets First Resort, the only licensed pregnancy consulting health clinic. First Resort receives no taxpayer money, is not affiliated with any national “pro-life” organization or church and exists solely to provide free medical care and counseling services to assist women in making fully informed decisions about unplanned pregnancies.
Lobbying by a private political organization produced this ordinance. The National Abortion Rights Action League has a long history of unfairly attacking First Resort by lumping it in with groups whose practices and standards are markedly different. Not satisfied with the results of those efforts, NARAL has, according to multiple press reports, worked closely with the city attorney and directly with Supervisor Malia Cohen to develop the pending law. It is an abuse of governmental power and the legislative process to draft legislation to target one organization for the benefit of a political ally — especially when that attack is based on the target organization’s ideas and speech.
The lack of facts to justify this bill is so complete that even progressive Supervisor John Avalos voted not to approve it in committee. Then, as if to emphasize that this bill is motivated by politics, not facts, he told the full board that although he still wasn’t convinced of any wrongdoing by First Resort or any other pregnancy center in San Francisco, he was voting for the bill to protect “a woman’s right to choose,” as if that were somehow at stake.
Supporters of the ordinance rely entirely on stereotyping, speculation, hyperbole and badly stretched inferences from Google searches and Yelp reviews. Not one shred of evidence attests to anyone being harmed in any manner by anything First Resort did or said. Hardly a record that calls for a new law — or that will stand up in court, as Supervisor Sean Elsbernd courageously warned the full Board.
The law purports to protect women “seeking information regarding options to terminate a pregnancy” from receiving “untrue or misleading” information from providers of medical or counseling services, yet it expressly excludes from its scope all caregivers, including The City itself, that “provide or provide referrals to clients for … abortions.” The full burden of making sure nobody feels misled by true information (else why “untrue or misleading?”), and that no trivial inaccuracy exists in public statements, falls on persons and organizations The City regards as having “anti-abortion” or pro-life views. Holders of approved opinions are exempt.
The combination of the vague requirements of the law and its intimidating enforcement provisions creates an impermissible chilling effect on free speech, in violation of the First Amendment. The city attorney would be authorized unilaterally to determine what speech, or even what failure to speak, is “untrue or misleading,” and then issue a short-fused (10 days) cease and desist letter, file a lawsuit for injunctive relief, and seek possibly draconian fines and penalties including attorney’s fees and costs, no matter how trivial the alleged violations are.
These provisions are obviously meant to enable The City to intimidate small organizations or groups of citizens into speaking only in ways The City “approves.” In light of public pronouncements by the City Attorney’s Office, it is clear the risk of bias and discrimination in enforcement is very high.
Taxpayers beware: The supervisors, despite a cautionary memo by the same City Attorney’s Office, have decided that getting NARAL’s political blessing is worth sending The City into costly litigation it is doomed to lose. This is not just a redundant law prohibiting false advertising, as state law already does. It is a thinly veile unconstitutional restriction of speech targeting one or two organizations with which the proponents of the ordinance disagree.
Paul Sluis is a 20-year volunteer for First Resort, one of two crisis pregnancy centers in San Francisco.