Montgomery County pays $375,000 for violating pregnancy center’s free speech rights
SILVER SPRING, MD – After four years and three court decisions, a D.C.-area crisis pregnancy center has finally received justice.
Montgomery County, Maryland, has paid $375,000 in attorney's fees, court costs, and damages to Centro Tepeyac Silver Spring Women's Center and its legal counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF).
“The critical flaw for the County is the lack of any evidence that the practices of [the pregnancy care centers] are causing pregnant women to be misinformed which is negatively affecting their health."
“Four years of litigation made it clear that the government had no basis for interfering with Centro Tepeyac’s loving efforts to help women,” lead counsel Mark Rienzi, who is also a law professor at Catholic University of America’s law school, said in a press release.
On February 2, 2010, the county passed an ordinance requiring “limited service pregnancy resource centers” – any facility that does not perform abortions – to post a sign in English and Spanish in its waiting room saying that “the Center does not have a licensed medical professional on staff” and that “the Montgomery County Health Officer encourages women who are or may be pregnant to consult with a licensed health care provider.”
County officials exempted abortion facilities from the requirement.
Centro Tepeyac, located in the D.C. suburbs, contacted ADF attorneys and filed suit on May 19, 2010. The law violated the center's First Amendment rights by legislating “compelled speech,” forcing someone to convey a message he would not say on his own.
During the long course of its litigation, the county lost three separate hearings of Centro Tepeyac v. Montgomery County: two from a U.S. district court and one from the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
In March 2011, U.S. District Judge Deborah Chasanow struck down part of the law but upheld the provision that CPC volunteers must say there was not a licensed medical professional on staff.
On July 3, 2013, the Richmond-based Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals voted 11-3 upholding Chasanow's decision.
Judge Chasanow, who was appointed to the bench in 1993 by President Bill Clinton, then struck down the entire ordinance, permanently forbidding the county from enforcing any part of it in March.
“The county has put no evidence into the record to demonstrate that failure clearly to state that no doctors are on premises has led to any negative health outcomes,” she ruled.
“The critical flaw for the County is the lack of any evidence that the practices of [the pregnancy care centers] are causing pregnant women to be misinformed which is negatively affecting their health,” she added. “When core First Amendment interests are implicated, mere intuition [of a problem] is not sufficient. Yet that is all the County has brought forth: intuition and suppositions.”
She added that the people who alleged the center engaged in “misinformation” were “universally volunteers from a pro-choice organization.”
Montgomery County announced it would stop defending the law in May.
The final settlement fee includes Judge Chasanow's decision to award nominal damages of one dollar to Centro Tepeyac.
“No government, in a quest to achieve a political goal, should ever resort to coercing or shutting down someone else’s speech in violation of the First Amendment,” ADF Senior Legal Counsel Matt Bowman, who was co-counsel in the case, said in a press release. “We hope that this settlement will cause other governments to reconsider any efforts to enforce similar laws.”