News Law and Policy

Court: CPCs in San Francisco Have to Tell the Truth

Nicole Knight

A law prohibiting anti-choice fake clinics from running ads that make it seem like they’re abortion providers is ruled constitutional.

A San Francisco ordinance that outlaws “false or misleading advertising by limited services pregnancy centers” doesn’t violate the facilities’ constitutional rights, a California appellate panel ruled Tuesday.

The panel rejected an equal protection claim by a crisis pregnancy center (CPC), or fake clinic.

A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court ruling decision, finding the San Francisco ordinance regulates only “unprotected false or misleading commercial speech” that poses a “threat to women’s health.”

In rejecting the appeal by the fake clinic First Resort, Judge Dorothy W. Nelson wrote, “False and misleading advertising by clinics that do not provide abortions … has become a problem of national importance.”

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San Francisco enacted its truth-in-advertising law in 2011 to stop anti-choice fake clinics from running ads that make it seem like they’re abortion providers. The city ordinance imposes penalties on fake clinics that make false and misleading statements—such as pretending to offer abortion services when they don’t.

Those who work at CPCs are widely known to proselytize against abortion, and federal and independent investigations have caught CPC staff engaging in trickery and deceit to dissuade pregnant people seeking abortion care. First Resort swiftly sued to block the law, arguing it violated the clinic’s First Amendment rights. After a lower court rejected First Resort’s claims, the fake clinic appealed, this time arguing the law violates the 14th Amendment.

First Resort, the panel noted, sought to lure pregnant people by using online advertising services, such as Google Adwords, to target people searching for keywords such as “San Francisco” and “abortion.” First Resort has a clear anti-abortion agenda, with the goal “to build an abortion-free world,” the panel wrote.

First Resort has an unusual benefactor, as Rewire reported last year. San Francisco Foundation, the country’s 12th largest community foundation in terms of total assets, gave First Resort $53,550 between 2010 and 2014, during much of the period the fake clinic was suing to block the truth-in-advertising ordinance. 

Oakland legislators enacted a similar truth-in-advertising ordinance in 2016. A state law requires clinics to post a brief notice and a number to call for free- and low-cost reproductive health services, including abortion care.

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