WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court will hear a free speech challenge to a California law that targets anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers, adding to a term that is loaded with First Amendment disputes.
The justices said Monday they will review the centers’ complaint that the new law, pushed by an abortion-rights group, forces them to provide information about abortion and other services.
Lower courts had allowed the law to take effect. Unlicensed centers also must inform clients of their status.
Two other new cases the justices added Monday also involve free-speech claims, by opponents of a Minnesota law banning any political attire at polling places and a Florida man who contends police arrested him in retaliation for voicing his views.
In those cases as well, courts rejected the challengers’ constitutional claims.
First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams said in an email that “the court’s decision to hear three cases in one term in which distinct First Amendment claims had been made and rejected in the lower courts certainly illustrates its intense focus on cases in which freedom of expression is center stage.” The Constitution’s First Amendment guarantees the right to free speech.
Even before Monday, the justices had major free speech cases on their agenda.
A fight over the politically motivated reshaping of electoral districts, a major case argued last month, could turn on whether the court finds that Republican-drawn districts in Wisconsin penalize Democratic voters because of their political beliefs, in violation of the First Amendment.
Next month, the court will hear the appeal of a Colorado baker who says he should not be compelled to create a cake for a same-sex wedding.
Early next year, the justices will take up an appeal from a government worker in Illinois who says his rights are violated by a state requirement that he pay fees to the labor union that represents public employees.
The concentration of cases fits into a broader pattern that has marked the court under Chief Justice John Roberts, including the bitterly divided Citizens United decision in 2010 and related cases that struck down campaign finance limits.
But other high-profile free speech cases during Roberts’ tenure have joined the court’s conservative and liberal justices.
“There’s a strong bipartisan consensus on the Roberts court to uphold the First Amendment tradition of protecting hate speech,” said Jeffrey Rosen, president of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. The justices generally support limits on speech only when there’s a risk of imminent violence, Rosen said.
The crisis pregnancy center appeal appears to be one of those that is more likely to divide the justices, with Anthony Kennedy as perhaps the pivotal vote.
In urging the court to stay out of the case, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said the law was intended to make clear to the 700,000 women who become pregnant in the state each year that there is medical care, including abortion, available to people who can’t afford it on their own. California said the information the centers must provide falls within well-accepted regulation of businesses and professionals.
But Michael Farris, president of the Alliance Defending Freedom legal group that is representing the centers, said government is picking winners and losers by requiring only centers that oppose abortion to display the information.
“The government should never be permitted to coerce speech it favors over speech it does not favor,” Farris said.
A federal appeals court in New York struck down similar provisions of a New York City ordinance, although it upheld the requirement for unlicensed centers to say that they lack a license.
The free-speech issue has arisen in different contexts around the country.
In 2014, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Richmond, Virginia, struck down a North Carolina law that required abortion providers to show and describe an ultrasound to the pregnant woman. The court said the law is “ideological in intent” and violates doctors’ free-speech rights.
In February, the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Florida could not prohibit doctors from talking about gun safety with their patients, upending parts of a 2011 state law. Under the law, doctors faced fines and the possible loss of their medical licenses for discussing guns with patients.
The abortion-rights group NARAL Pro-Choice California was a prime sponsor of the California law. NARAL estimates that 4,000 crisis pregnancy centers operate in the U.S.
The three new cases will be argued in February or March.