Bruni v. City of Pittsburgh — First Amendment — vacate in part — Jordan
The overwhelming majority of circuit court decisions are uncontroversial and essentially non-ideological. This ain’t one of them.
The Third Circuit today vacated an order dismissing First Amendment challenge to Pittsburgh’s ordinance prohibiting certain speech within fifteen feet of health care facilities. The suit was brought by five plaintiffs who “engage in what they call ‘sidewalk counseling’ on the public sidewalk outside of a Pittsburgh Planned Parenthood facility in an effort, through close conversation, to persuade women to forego abortion services.”
The blockbuster language from Jordan’s opinion:
Considered in the light most favorable to the Plaintiffs, the First Amendment claims are sufficient to go forward at this stage of the litigation. The speech at issue is core political speech entitled to the maximum protection afforded by the First Amendment, and the City cannot burden it without first trying, or at least demonstrating that it has seriously considered, substantially less restrictive alternatives that would achieve the City’s legitimate, substantial, and content-neutral interests. McCullen teaches that the constitutionality of buffer zone laws turns on the factual circumstances giving rise to the law in each individual case – the same type of buffer zone may be upheld on one record where it might be struck down on another. Hence, dismissal of claims challenging ordinances like the one at issue here will rarely, if ever, be appropriate at the pleading stage. Instead, factual development will likely be indispensable to the assessment of whether an ordinance is constitutionally permissible.
I agree with the majority that the allegations in the Complaint, taken as true, establish that Pittsburgh’s Ordinance restricting certain speech within 15 feet of designated health care facilities violates the intermediate-scrutiny standard for time, place, and manner regulations. I disagree, however, with the majority’s reasoning in support of that result. In particular, I disagree with its conclusion that the Supreme Court’s decision in McCullen v. Coakley requires governments that place “significant” burdens on speech to prove either that less speech-restrictive measures have failed or that alternative measures were “seriously” considered and “reasonably” rejected. That interpretation distorts narrow-tailoring doctrine by eliminating the government’s latitude to adopt regulations that are not “the least restrictive or least intrusive means of serving the government’s interests.” Nothing in McCullen or the Supreme Court’s First Amendment jurisprudence requires us to apply such a rule. Accordingly, as to Plaintiffs’ free-speech claim, I concur only in the judgment.
In an especially strongly worded footnote, the majority fired back (emphasis mine):
The concurrence repeatedly tries to downplay the significance of McCullen – variously referring to the opinion as “incremental,” “modest,” and “unexceptional” (Concurrence at 4-5) – and devotes much of its energy to narrowing that case only to its facts. It does so, presumably, in service of a desire to avoid the import of the Supreme Court’s decision. Consider our colleague’s reading of McCullen: “[u]nlike the majority, I do not believe that McCullen announces a general rule requiring the government to affirmatively prove that less-restrictive measures would fail to achieve its interests.” (Concurrence at 1-2.) Then try to reconcile that with the actual language of McCullen: “To meet the requirement of narrow tailoring, the government must demonstrate that alternative measures that burden substantially less speech would fail to achieve the government’s interests, not simply that the chosen route is easier.” 134 S. Ct. at 2540. We are more ready than our colleague is to take the high Court at its word, and that is the heart of our disagreement with him.
I’d certainly expect a petition for en banc rehearing here. I’m not making any prediction about whether it would be granted, but I expect it would get a very careful look.
Joining Jordan was Vanaskie; Fuentes joined in part and concurred in the judgment on the First Amendment issue. Arguing counsel were Matthew Bowman (a CA3 Alito clerk) of the Alliance Defending Freedom for the challengers and Matthew McHale for the city.