Pro-life pregnancy centers sue Vermont over law targeting their advertisements 

Pregnancy center Prostock-Studio/Shutterstock

Two pro-life pregnancy centers and an institution that supports those centers are suing Vermont state officials over a new law that could land them thousands of dollars in fines if the attorney general’s office considers their advertisements to be misleading.

The lawsuit, filed July 25, alleges that the law violates First Amendment free speech protections and the right to due process enshrined in the 14th Amendment.

Alliance Defending Freedom is providing pro-bono legal assistance to the two pregnancy centers, Aspire Now and Branches Pregnancy Resource Center, and the religious nonprofit National Institute of Family and Life Advocates, who are all named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Republican Gov. Phil Scott signed legislation on May 10 that allows the attorney general’s office to bring civil action against pro-life pregnancy centers for advertisements that are either “untrue” or “clearly designed to mislead the public about the nature of services provided.” The law only applies to pro-life pregnancy centers and does not apply to abortion providers, such as Planned Parenthood. 

The legislation does not clearly define what the state considers untrue or misleading but has several subsections accusing pro-life pregnancy centers of engaging in such conduct. For example, the law alleges that some centers “provide confusing and misleading information to pregnant individuals contemplating abortion” and “have promoted patently false or biased medical claims about abortion, pregnancy, contraception, and reproductive health care providers.”

Julia Payne, legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, told CNA that the law “doesn’t define false and misleading” and that the centers do not know what the “pro-abortion attorney general considers misleading.” She said the law gives “government officials the chance to enforce a law arbitrarily [that] ... targets pro-life pregnancy centers.”

If the attorney general’s office brings a civil claim against one of these pregnancy centers, that center could be subject to a $10,000 fine for each offense. This has caused some pregnancy centers, such as Branches Pregnancy Resource Center, to stop providing certain information out of fear that the law will be weaponized against them. 

“If they were to hit us with these fines, we would be shut down,” Jean Marie Davis, the executive director of Branches Pregnancy Resource Center, told CNA. 

Davis said the center tries to work with law enforcement to prevent human trafficking, offers parenting classes, refers patients to OB-GYNs, and provides information on the abortion reversal pill. It also provides diapers, formula, clothes, high chairs, and other necessities for free. 

“If we’re able to provide it and give them the resources, we do that,” Davis said. 

But now, the current law is “so broad” and “so vague” that she said the center does not know what information it is allowed to provide. 

“We don’t know what they’re considering misleading,” Davis said, adding that the current situation is “very frustrating.”

Payne said that the fines “could easily shut down a small nonprofit pregnancy center” and argued that the derisive language used in the legislation to describe these centers “provides evidence of the viewpoint discriminatory purpose of the law.”

“Women who become unexpectedly pregnant should be empowered with life-affirming options, emotional support, and practical resources,” Payne said in a statement. “Vermont’s law, however, does the opposite — it impedes women’s ability to receive critical services during a difficult time in their lives and suppresses the free-speech rights of faith-based pregnancy centers. Pregnancy centers should be free to serve women and offer the support they need without fear of unjust government punishment.”

The lawsuit alleges that the current law violates the First Amendment by “abridging the freedom of speech” through viewpoint discrimination and content-based restrictions. It also alleges 14th Amendment due process violations because its vagueness “fails to provide a person of ordinary intelligence with fair notice of what is prohibited” and “is so standard-less that it authorizes or encourages seriously discriminatory enforcement.”

The centers are asking the court to award a permanent injunction to prevent state officials from enforcing the law.

CNA reached out to the attorney general’s office but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

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