National Partnership for Women & Families

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In limited ruling, federal judge says Baltimore cannot make CPC comply with disclosure ordinance

A federal judge last week ruled that Baltimore officials cannot require a crisis pregnancy center (CPC) to comply with a 2009 city law aimed at curbing such facilities' misinformation, but he declined to rule that the law itself was unconstitutional, the Baltimore Sun reports (Duncan, Baltimore Sun, 10/7).

Background

The Baltimore ordinance (FID 09-0406) would require "limited-service pregnancy centers" to post signs in English and Spanish stating what services they provide -- such as maternity and infant supplies, prenatal care and adoption referrals -- and what they do not offer, such as abortion care and contraceptive services. Centers that fail to comply within 10 days of being cited by city inspectors could be fined $150 per day.

In January 2011, U.S. District Judge Marvin Garbis ruled that the Baltimore ordinance violates the Freedom of Speech Clause of the Constitution and cannot be enforced (Women's Health Policy Report, 3/26/12). City officials and the Center for Reproductive Rights appealed the decision, and in 2013, the full 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the decision was "inappropriate" and remanded the lawsuit back to Garbis (Center for Reproductive Rights press release, 7/3/13).

In 2014, a federal judge ruled against a similar ordinance in Montgomery County.

Latest developments

In the latest ruling, Garbis refused to rule that the ordinance was unconstitutional, but he said allowing Baltimore officials to enforce the ordinance would violate the free-speech rights of the Center for Pregnancy Concerns. He wrote that the city failed to demonstrate that the CPC had harmed women or that the ordinance was written narrowly enough to shield women from false advertising.

Garbis wrote, "The Disclaimer as mandated forces pregnancy centers to begin their conversations with a stark government disclaimer, divorced from the support offered by the Center, and suggesting that abortion is available elsewhere and might be considered a good option by pregnant women -- a message that the Center [objects to] ... and would not otherwise provide."

Garbis restricted his ruling solely to the Center for Pregnancy Concerns. According to Garbis, the CPC had told callers seeking abortion care that they did not provide that service and disclosed their antiabortion-rights stance in a brochure. Garbis noted that while another Baltimore-based CPC might have similar claims against the ordinance, he did not have sufficient evidence to issue a broader ruling.

Comments

Anthony McCarthy, a spokesperson for Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D), said, "[T]he city is currently exploring all legal options to ensure that women obtain access to the time-sensitive reproductive health services they seek." According to the Sun, the city could appeal the ruling to the 4th Circuit.

Separately, Amber Banks, a spokesperson for NARAL Pro-Choice Maryland, said her organization would continue to combat the misinformation promulgated by CPCs. "People are still being deceived by them and are still being harmed by them," she said, adding, "We are committed to continuing to fight to ensure that people have access to accurate information" (Baltimore Sun, 10/7).