4th Circuit Strikes Baltimore's 'No-Abortion' Posting Requirement

By Robyn Hagan Cain on June 29, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Pro-life clinics are often characterized as "crisis pregnancy centers." Pro-choice advocates claim the term is misleading because crisis pregnancy centers counsel women to continue their pregnancies. (Pro-life advocates counter that the name Planned Parenthood is equally misleading.)

Some cities, like New York and Baltimore, have responded to the misnomer criticism with posting requirements that require a "limited-service pregnancy center" to post signs announcing that they do not offer, or make referrals for, abortions or birth control services

Wednesday, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Baltimore's posting ordinance.

(The first 16 pages of the opinion are just the lists of plaintiffs, defendants, and amici, so we suspect that at least a few of you might be interested in the case.)

The Greater Baltimore Center for Pregnancy Concerns, Inc. (Pregnancy Center) sued the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, challenging the constitutionality of the Baltimore's Ordinance 09-252, which requires that "limited-service pregnancy centers" post signs disclaiming that they "do not provide or make referral for abortion or birth control services."

The lawsuit alleged that the ordinance -- both facially and as applied to the Pregnancy Center -- violated the plaintiffs' free speech, free exercise, and equal protection rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, as well as the plaintiffs' rights under the Conscience Clause of Maryland's health law.

The district court granted summary judgment to the Pregnancy Center on its freedom of speech count, finding that the Ordinance 09-252 disclaimer was a form of compelled speech. (The court dismissed the remaining counts without prejudice, in light of its free speech ruling.)

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court this week. Writing for the 2-1 majority, Judge Niemeyer noted that Baltimore did not have a compelling interest for the ordinance:

Here, the record establishes, at most, only isolated instances of misconduct by pregnancy centers generally, and ... none by the Pregnancy Center itself. Indeed, the record contains no evidence that any woman has been misled into believing that any pregnancy center subject to Ordinance 09-252 was a medical clinic or that a woman in Baltimore delayed seeking medical services because of such a misconception ... The City's failure to provide more than speculative evidence of problems at Baltimore's pregnancy centers strongly suggests that the need for regulation of those centers is not as pressing as the City asserts.

In his dissent, Judge King criticized the majority for "rushing to summary judgment" instead of letting the city conduct discovery.

Limited-service pregnancy center posting requirements have not fared well in summary judgment proceedings. Do you agree with Judge King that the courts should allow discovery, or are such laws obvious free speech rights violations?

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