In October 2011, San Francisco passed an ordinance prohibiting “pregnancy crisis centers” from engaging in misleading advertising. The ordinance allows courts to fine these centers, which counsel pregnant women against abortions, up to $500 every time they falsely advertise or imply that they offer abortion services. First Resort, Inc., one of the centers targeted by the ordinance, filed suit in the United States District Court for Northern California, accusing the city of a First Amendment violation.
Although First Resort’s website lists abortion as an option for an unwanted pregnancy, stating that it offers “pre and post abortion counseling” and features a testimonial from a client who chose abortion, First Resort fails to state that it does not actually offer any abortion services or referrals to abortion providers. These kinds of omissions form the basis for the claim that the center misleads through false advertising.
Laws in other cities, including New York and Baltimore, that have attempted to regulate pregnancy crisis centers have approached the issue by requiring the centers to post signs informing women that they do not provide abortion services. These types of laws compelling speech generally have not survived First Amendment challenges. The issue in the San Francisco case likely will turn on whether the court views pregnancy crisis centers as sufficiently affecting public health, such that the state may regulate them, and whether the court views the ordinance as regulating commercial or political speech.