Press Release

Broad coalition urges Supreme Court to protect sidewalk counselor States, legal experts, sidewalk counselors ask Court to restore right to support women in need

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Ryan Colby 202-349-7219

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WASHINGTON – A coalition of states, legal experts, sidewalk counselors, pregnancy resource centers, pro-life feminist groups, and more filed friend-of-the-court briefs yesterday in Vitagliano v. County of Westchester, urging the Supreme Court to restore sidewalk counselors’ ability to offer compassionate support to women outside abortion clinics. Last month, Catholic sidewalk counselor Debra Vitagliano asked the Court to reconsider its heavily criticized decision in Hill v. Colorado, which allowed states and local governments to ban peaceful, life-affirming conversation on public sidewalks outside abortion clinics.

“I want to offer abortion-vulnerable women a message of hope and compassion, letting them know that they are loved and can keep their babies,” said Debra Vitagliano, a sidewalk counselor and resident of Westchester County. “I am thankful for this outpouring of support for my ministry and sidewalk counselors across the country, and I pray that the Justices will take my case and vindicate my First Amendment rights.”

Motivated by her Catholic faith and experience as an occupational therapist for special-needs children, Debra Vitagliano felt called to offer compassionate, face-to-face support to women considering abortion. Debra desires to help these women in the most critical moment—when they are approaching the abortion clinic. But last year, Westchester County, New York, passed a law restricting discussions about abortion, its alternatives, and resources available to abortion-vulnerable women on public sidewalks outside abortion clinics. The law established a 100-foot zone around abortion clinics—including public sidewalks—preventing anyone from approaching within eight feet of another person in that zone unless given explicit consent. Such bans on sidewalk counseling deprive abortion-vulnerable women of a final opportunity to receive help and learn about additional resources before potentially making a life-altering choice.

Westchester County’s law was modeled after and virtually identical to the Colorado law that the Supreme Court upheld in Hill v Colorado. But legal scholars and judges have long criticized Hill, and last year, five Justices of the Supreme Court stated that Hill was a major departure from our nation’s protections of free speech. Debra’s case presents an ideal opportunity for the Supreme Court to right Hill’s wrong and protect all those who want to serve abortion-vulnerable women.

Highlights from the friend-of-the-court filings in Vitagliano v. County Westchester include:

  • First Amendment experts Eugene Volokh (of UCLA School of Law), Richard W. Garnett (of Notre Dame Law School), and Michael Stokes Paulsen (of the University of St. Thomas Law School) highlighted the widespread disagreement with Hill by pro-choice and pro-life scholars alike, as well as by the ACLU.
  • Fourteen States argued that continued reliance on Hill curtails free-speech rights and explained how governments can protect public safety outside abortion clinics without Hill.
  • Life-affirming feminist organizations argued that Hill reflects a “paternalistic belief” “rooted in the sexist assumption that women are too fragile to hear alternative viewpoints.”
  • Sidewalk counselor Jeannie Hill—the plaintiff in Hill itself—highlighted Hill’s departure from pre-existing First Amendment jurisprudence and destabilizing effect on the rule of law.
  • Alliance Defending Freedom argued that recent “hostility toward the pro-life community has exacerbated the need for an end to Hill.”
  • Pregnancy resource centers explained how they offer tangible help to expectant and new mothers, with testimonials from women who benefitted from such help.

The list of friend-of-the-court briefs can be found here.

“Governments should not try to outlaw peaceful conversations on public sidewalks, and they certainly shouldn’t make it harder for women to get complete information,” said Mark Rienzi, president and CEO at Becket. “As this wave of support shows, it’s time for the Court to fix the mistake in Hill and make clear that the law protects people like Debra Vitagliano who want to offer help to women in need.”

A response from Westchester County is due to the Supreme Court by September 25.

For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby atmedia@becketlaw.orgor 202-349-7219.Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.