Something has been bothering me for a while about the en banc oral argument last month over a Baltimore ordinance that requires “limited-resource pregnancy centers” to post a notice that they do not refer for abortion or birth control services. I’ve now done some follow-up research. Others may view the results of this research differently, but in my view, counsel for Baltimore’s artful characterization of an advertisement in the record probably misled others present at the argument in the same way that it (temporarily) misled me.
At the argument, counsel for Baltimore asserted that the city was trying to combat “consumer deception in the offer of pregnancy services.” A powerful part of this argument came just two minutes in, when counsel pointed the court to an “Option Line” advertisement in the Joint Appendix that she described as “clearly and inherently misleading.” Counsel argued that the advertisement was misleading because it offered “medical services” including “abortion” and “morning-after pill,” even though none of the centers actually offered abortions or the morning-after pill. Until near the end of the argument, none of the judges questioned counsel’s characterization of the Option Line advertisement even though she pointed to the page in the Joint Appendix where this “clearly and inherently misleading” advertisement could be found. And by the time one judge asked about it, it seemed as if the rest of the judges had already accepted the characterization.
This has been bothering me because, shortly after the argument, I googled “Option Line” and I could not see how someone scanning the Option Line website would get the impression that one could use the referral service to obtain either an abortion or the morning-after pill. I thought then that, unless Option Line’s advertising had changed substantially between passage of the ordinance (when the Baltimore City Council was allegedly concerned about deception) and the afternoon of the oral argument (when I reviewed the Option Line website), there was a real possibility that counsel for Baltimore had artfully and somewhat misleadingly characterized the advertisement in the JA.
I recently listened to the audio to verify my notes, and I pulled the Joint Appendix off of PACER to check the actual advertisement. I’ve posted the relevant JA page here. The advertisement contains the words “abortion” and “morning after pill” and “medical services.” But, in my view, the advertisement cannot reasonably be viewed as offering the “medical services” of either “abortion” or the “morning-after pill.” In relevant part, the advertisement states:
Our consultants will connect you to nearby pregnancy centers that offer the following services:
- Free pregnancy tests and pregnancy information
- Abortion and Morning After Pill information, including procedures and risks
- Medical services, including STD tests, early ultrasounds and pregnancy confirmation
- Confidential pregnancy options
There is an obvious difference between offering information about abortion and the morning-after pill, on the one hand, and offering medical services such as the provision of abortion and the morning-after pill, on the other hand. Baltimore’s argument glides right over this difference. Unfortunately, Baltimore’s artful characterization of this advertisement mattered to the oral argument. Approximately 35 minutes into the argument, for example, Judge Shedd mentioned to counsel for the centers that “we’ve heard about the website that contained the false information,”thus suggesting that he accepted counsel’s artful characterization of the Option Line website.
Near the very end of the argument (around the 1:14:00 mark on the audio), Judge Niemeyer asked counsel whether Baltimore had any evidence that the clinics regulated by the ordinance “have advertised that they do provide abortions, falsely.” She responded “yes,” pointing to the Option Line advertisement. The argument continued:
Q (Niemeyer): What does it say, it says, “we provide abortion”?
A (Counsel): It says we provide medical services, quote, and then it also, quote, abortion and morning-after pill. . . .
* * *
Q (Wilkinson): That’s false advertising, isn’t it? It can be addressed in a variety of ways . . .
A (Counsel): It’s false. It is. . . .
As I’ve previously observed, the drift of this argument seemed to be that the case would be sent back for more discovery. If that happens, I would be surprised if Baltimore is able to show that any of the clinics regulated by their ordinance “have advertised that they do provide abortions, falsely.” As I read it, and as I suspect most other fair-minded readers would read it as well, the advertisement featured by counsel for Baltimore at oral argument does nothing of the sort.
In light of all this, it will be interesting, regardless of the outcome, to see what use the judges of the Fourth Circuit make of the record that is already before them.
[UPDATE: The companion case from Montgomery County has gone through discovery, although that record is not before the Fourth Circuit at this time. A link to the plaintiff's memorandum of law in support of summary judgment, which contains a discussion of the evidence in that case, is in the post above.]