Newsom signs bill restricting pro-life messages and counseling outside abortion clinics

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SACRAMENTO, CA – Yesterday, Governor Newsom signed a bill (SB 742) to limit free speech outside any business or medical facility administering vaccines, including abortion clinics. The bill seeks to prevent those wanting a vaccine from being intimidated or harassed while trying to get one. 

Yet, the new law’s definition of harassment is so broad that it restricts protected free speech like sign-holding, sidewalk counseling, and literature distribution that prolife advocates do outside abortion clinics, while giving an exemption for speech related to labor disputes. Planned Parenthood recently announced plans to administer the COVID-19 vaccine. 

“Vaccination can be controversial, so every person should be free to make the best choice for them and their family,” said California Family Council President Jonathan Keller. “But SB 742 is a Trojan Horse attack on the First Amendment rights of all Californians. Groups like Planned Parenthood will use this law to silence peaceful pro-life speech and assembly.”

Bill author Senator Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), a medical doctor and advocate for vaccination mandates, argued those walking into a vaccination site need a 30-foot buffer from anyone approaching who might intimidate them, get them sick, or harass them with anti-vaccination messages. Here is how the bill defines harassment: 

“Harassing” means knowingly approaching, 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.”

The messages restricted within this buffer zone aren’t limited to anti-vaccination speech, but any speech on any topic, with one exception according to the bill text, “lawful picketing arising out of a labor dispute.” 

Legal experts and a member of Pan’s own party don’t think this law is going to survive a legal challenge. “The proposed law is blatantly unconstitutional,” said Alliance Defending Freedom’s Senior Counsel Denise Harle. “The First Amendment right to free speech is guaranteed to all Americans in all places; the Constitution can’t be nullified by so-called buffer zones.”

“The Supreme Court unanimously ruled in McCullen v. Coakley that a similar buffer zone placed too great a burden on First Amendment rights,” she explained. “We oppose this egregious speech restriction and we are disappointed that Gov. Newsom failed to stand up for the rights of Californians and veto the bill.”

Fellow Democrat Assemblyman Bill Quirk, a former NASA scientist, raised legal concerns about SB 742 in the Assembly Public Safety Committee several months ago. During the bill hearing, Pan argued the 30-foot buffer zone in the bill was needed to protect those seeking a vaccine from getting the COVID-19 virus from protestors. But Quirk questioned the scientific validity of this claim. 

“There is absolutely no evidence I know of, and I’ve been looking, that you can transmit over 30 feet outside,” Quirk said. “Frankly it is almost impossible to do that indoors. …I really don’t think that that measure, and probably some of the others you have in the bill would survive a court challenge.” 

“I will be voting for it [SB 742] today, but I would suggest you change the bill.” (Watch Quirk’s comments here at the 1:45:23 minute mark.) 

This new law, which goes into effect immediately, will directly affect 40 Days for Life campaigns going on until the end of the month outside abortion centers in 60 California cities.

Catherine Short, Life Legal Defense Foundation Legal Director, is prepared to challenge the law and will be seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against the enforcement of SB 742 when the federal courts open next Tuesday. She will be suing on behalf of pro-life sidewalk counselors in San Jose, Santa Cruz, and Sacramento. 

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