California officials have agreed to protect free speech and pay $192,706 in attorneys’ fees to settle a lawsuit brought by the pro-life group Right to Life of Central California.
In October 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed SB 742, a California regulation that established 30-foot buffer zones within 100 feet of institutions offering any kind of vaccine.
The bill claimed that the 30-foot buffer zone was necessary because of the distance that airborne diseases such as COVID-19 can be spread, but this was far more restricting than the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation of staying six feet apart.
It also threatened Right to Life’s outreach to pregnant women. Because Right to Life’s Outreach Center is located next to a Planned Parenthood facility that administers HPV vaccines in Fresno, the regulation encroached on how the pro-life group’s staff and volunteers could peacefully counsel people outside Right to Life’s own building, including its parking lot.
SB 742 made it illegal for anyone to knowingly approach, without consent, “within 30 feet of another person or occupied vehicle for the purpose of passing a leaflet or handbill to, displaying a sign to, or engaging in oral protest, education, or counseling with that other person in a public way or on a sidewalk area.” A violation of the regulation could result in a $1,000 fine and/or imprisonment for up to six months.
According to Right to Life’s website, its employees and volunteers stand on the public sidewalk outside the outreach center to offer abortion alternatives, free information and helpful resources to young women and couples entering and leaving Planned Parenthood.
“Our compassionate and competent staff and volunteers shine a bright light in this community through their loving care and support for women who are facing an incredibly difficult time in their lives,” said Right to Life of Central California Executive Director John Gerardi after the bill was signed in 2021. “Through this new state law, the government is silencing our voice from the public square. We will continue advocating for California’s most vulnerable persons—the unborn—and caring for and supporting their mothers.”
The law made an exemption for those engaging in “lawful picketing arising out of a labor dispute,” despite providing no evidence that transmission of an airborne disease would be less likely if the speech arose from a labor dispute—or how displaying a sign could contribute to transmission of an airborne disease in any case.
Represented by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), Right to Life filed a lawsuit against the state in U.S. District Court.
“Women facing unplanned pregnancies deserve to have full support and resources available to them when they choose life for their unborn children, yet the state of California unconstitutionally tried to silence the voices of those advocating on their behalf,” said ADF Senior Counsel Denise Harle.
Last summer, the court ruled that the state of California could no longer enforce the discriminatory parts of the law during the lawsuit. This month, in addition to agreeing to pay nearly $200,000 to settle the lawsuit, California officials agreed not to enforce the discriminatory sections of the law.
“This is a significant victory not only for our client, Right to Life, but for every other speaker in California,” Harle concluded. “The First Amendment protects every Californian, regardless of their viewpoint. Now Right to Life’s staff and volunteers can continue their critical mission of serving vulnerable women in the central California region with their free, life-giving services.”
Photo: Right to Life of Central California