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“Well, Shut My Mouth” An Idea Our Government’s Beginning to Embrace

By Alan Sears posted on:
October 17, 2017

For a nation founded on free speech, Americans are finding more and more ways to silence each other. 

Fort Wayne, Indiana
In Fort Wayne, Indiana, ADF attorneys continue to press the case for Women’s Health Link (WHL), a life-affirming health care referral service for women in need. WHL wanted no more than to place an ad on local city buses. The ad featured WHL’s contact information, along with a picture of a young woman and the tagline “You’re Not Alone.”

That seems harmless enough, no? But officials with the city-run bus company said the WHL website includes information on “controversial issues.” Women’s health is a controversial issue? (Yes, apparently, if your service is promoting life choices over abortion.)

Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys filed a federal lawsuit against Citilink for denying the ad. When a district court upheld the city’s ban, ADF appealed that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals.

“A city can’t run ads from some non-profit groups, such as the United Way, and then censor a nearly identical ad from a group like Women’s Health Link,” says ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot. “The First Amendment protects freedom of speech for all people, regardless of their political, moral, or religious views.”

North Carolina
Well, it’s a thought, but one not catching on too fast at North Carolina State University. Officials there are enforcing a policy that requires a permit for virtually any kind of student speech or communication, anywhere on campus.

The constitutionality of such a ban has been called into question since the university forbade members of Grace Christian Life, a registered student group, to so much as invite other students to their meetings or even explain what their group is about.

Curiously, that’s a restriction that seems to kick in only for certain groups whose enthusiasms are what NCSU administrators (like Fort Wayne officials) deem “controversial.” Since that violates the First Amendment just as surely in North Carolina as it does in Indiana, ADF staff and allied attorneys are representing Grace Christian Life in a federal lawsuit now being heard in U.S. District Court. Thankfully, the Court issued an order prohibiting NCSU from enforcing its policy until the lawsuit is decided.

“A university acts inconsistently with its own calling as a marketplace of ideas when it places unconstitutional restrictions on the free speech of students,” says ADF Senior Counsel Tyson Langhofer. “We are asking the court to halt NC State’s policy while this case proceeds.”

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, local officials’ idea of “controversial” is anyone sharing their thoughts on abortion or other health issues within 15 feet of a medical facility – whether that facility is an abortion center, an optometrist’s office, or a “therapeutic” building.

The city is enforcing a censorship zone banning free speech within that 15-foot perimeter – a clear defiance of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in McCullen v. Coakley (an ADF-sponsored case) that deems such zones unconstitutional.

ADF attorneys and allied attorneys have successfully argued applications of McCullen v. Coakley in similar cases in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire, and are now bringing those arguments to bear on the mayor and city council of Pittsburgh. Earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit authorized that lawsuit to proceed.

“The government cannot muzzle speech just because pro-abortion politicians and special interests demand it,” says ADF Senior Counsel Matt Bowman. “The appeals court correctly applied what the Supreme Court made clear in the McCullen case: that free speech receives the highest protection on public sidewalks.”

When did Americans – and in particular their elected officials – decide we couldn’t talk to each other? That governments and administrative bodies can arbitrarily define what’s “controversial” and what isn’t – and make what’s “controversial” unspeakable?

It’s a question we need to be asking, and that needs to impact both our voting and our prayers – while we still have the freedom to vote and pray out loud. Because a government that can take away our voices can take away any other way we might choose to express ourselves in the public square. And will do so … if we don’t speak up.

Alan Sears

Alan Sears


Alan Sears served as founder of Alliance Defending Freedom, building on his experience as longtime leader of the organization to strengthen alliances, forge new relationships, and develop ADF resources.