California unlawfully discriminated against certain speech with a law passed during the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, national, state, and local governments all issued various orders that were apparently supposed to help keep people safe. Unfortunately, some of the laws and regulations passed did not accomplish what they were supposed to. Instead, they were used to silence Americans.
In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law in 2021 that banned certain free-speech activities within 30 feet of any place that offered any kind of vaccines. These restrictions went far beyond the recommended guidelines to protect people from contracting the virus, and they violated the First Amendment in the process.
What is Right to Life of Central California?
Right to Life of Central California is a nonprofit organization that serves women facing unplanned pregnancies or grieving due to abortion. It offers emotional and material support, educational resources, medical care, and counseling to women who need it.
Right to Life partners with others in the community to offer women pregnancy tests, ultrasounds, food, clothing, adoption and foster care options, and more. The organization hosts a weekly pro-life radio program on Saturday mornings, an educational YouTube channel, and various events, including an annual “Golf for Life” fundraiser.
As part of the group’s mission to serve women facing unplanned pregnancies, Right to Life staff and volunteers often counsel people on the sidewalk. But California’s law prohibited them from doing so.
California’s law created 30-foot buffer zones within a 100-foot radius of places offering vaccines. If a person was within 100 feet of one of these vaccine sites, the law banned him or her from speaking certain messages to anyone within 30 feet.
Instead of applying the law only to sites that were offering the COVID-19 vaccine, California inexplicably applied the law to places offering any type of vaccine. This included a Planned Parenthood facility in downtown Fresno offering HPV vaccines.
Right to Life staff and volunteers who counsel people on the sidewalk all sign a statement agreeing to be peaceful in their advocacy, and they only hold signs with life-affirming messages such as “Stand for Life” and “Pray to End Abortion.” But because Right to Life’s Outreach Center sits next to this Planned Parenthood facility, the law severely restricted Right to Life’s speech on the street outside the center, on the public sidewalk, and even in its own parking lot.
California never explained why its law required a distance of 30 feet between speakers and the people they were addressing, even though the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendation for a safe distance was six feet. And the law even included an exemption for unions and individuals to engage in “lawful picketing arising out of a labor dispute.”
Right to Life staff and volunteers seeking to counsel women on the sidewalk presented no greater risk of spreading COVID-19 than union workers who wanted to picket. California’s law discriminated against certain types of speech while allowing others, which is a clear violation of the First Amendment.
Shortly after Gov. Newsom signed the law, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) attorneys filed a lawsuit on behalf of Right to Life challenging the unconstitutional restrictions.
In July 2022, a federal district court ruled that Right to Life was likely to succeed on its claim that California violated the First Amendment, and the court barred California officials from enforcing the discriminatory parts of the law against Right to Life while the lawsuit proceeded.
Following this ruling, California officials agreed to a permanent settlement stipulating that they would not enforce the discriminatory parts of the law against Right to Life or any other speaker. They also agreed to pay $192,706 in attorneys’ fees, and ADF dismissed the lawsuit.
- October 2021: Gov. Newsom signed a law establishing 30-foot buffer zones that censored certain speech within a 100-foot radius of any place that offered vaccines. Soon after, ADF attorneys filed a lawsuit on behalf of Right to Life.
- July 2022: A federal district court ruled that Right to Life was likely to succeed on its claim that California violated the First Amendment, and it prohibited California officials from enforcing the discriminatory parts of the law while the lawsuit proceeded.
- September 2023: California officials signed a settlement in which they agreed to a court order permanently prohibiting enforcement of the discriminatory parts of the law against Right to Life or any speaker, and pay $192,706 in attorneys’ fees.
The bottom line
The right to free speech is for everyone—not just those in power; the government can’t silence speakers just because it doesn’t like what they say.