S.F. Supervisors Vote Law Against Pregnancy Crisis Center ‘False Advertising’

By Valerie Schmalz

SAN FRANCISCO, October 26th, 2011 --The San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved 10-1  “false advertising” legislation that targets pregnancy centers and sent it to Mayor Ed Lee for his signature.

The bill is crafted so that it affects only First Resort, an Oakland-based pregnancy resource organization that operates medical clinics in the Bay Area that offer ultrasound, prenatal care and support for pregnant women before and after pregnancy. The legislation, which was approved Oct. 18 and again on second reading Oct. 25 , exempts any organization that offers or refers for abortion and only affects those pregnancy resource centers operating as medical clinics.

The “False Advertising by Limited Services Pregnancy Centers” legislation, introduced by Supervisor Malia Cohen, is aimed at First Resort’s use of billboards in poor Latino and African-American neighborhoods and pay-per-click Google ads that bring up First Resort’s website in response to the search engine query “abortion.”

Legislation aimed at pregnancy centers in other states has directly regulated the centers, requiring them to post signs in their waiting rooms that they do not offer abortion.

The board “knowingly approved an ordinance which unequally applies the law to regulate and restrict speech by our organization,” First Resort said in a statement. “It is unfair and unnecessary and will have a chilling effect on those who value free speech and respect a woman’s right to choose.”

First Resort officials said they had not yet decided whether to appeal.

The lone dissenting vote was Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, who said the legislation was unsupported and unnecessary. No evidence had been presented of anyone who had been misled by First Resort, the organization that bill proponents had told him was the target of the legislation, said Elsbernd. “What I fear we are doing today is passing a solution in search of a problem,” he said.

That lack of evidence will make it more difficult for the city to defend the law on appeal, said Elsbernd, noting that three of four laws in other states that targeted crisis pregnancy centers had been tossed by the courts and the fourth was in litigation.

At an earlier committee meeting, Elsbernd noted First Resort as a medical clinic falls under state law prohibiting false advertising.

Cohen said her goal was to protect women and said the legislation “does not trample on any one organization’s First Amendment rights.” The ordinance leaves a determination of violation and enforcement up to the city attorney. Fines could be as high as $500 per violation.

Supervisor John Avalos said “while I’m not totally satisfied with it,” he would vote yes because “I do want to support legislation that is fully in favor of a woman’s right to choose and that is the overriding concern for me today.”

“This has been a tough one for me,” said Supervisor Mark Farrell who explained he had many friends at First Resort, but he would vote for the legislation because it prohibited false advertising. “This is not about First Resort. I have a lot of friends who are involved with the organization and have great things to say about the organization.”

Preposted with permission from Catholic San Francisco

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