New York Law School

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9th Circuit Rejects Constitutional Challenge to California Ban on Conversion Therapy for Minors

Posted on: August 29th, 2013 by Art Leonard No Comments
California Senate Bill 1172, which bans state-licensed mental health providers from conducting “sexual orientation change efforts” (SOCE), commonly known as “conversion therapy,” on patients who are under age 18, was scheduled to go into effect on January 1, 2013, but two lawsuits challenging its constitutionality, mainly on First Amendment free speech grounds, were filed by practitioners and others, leading to conflicting rulings on motions for preliminary relief.   On August 29, a 9th Circuit panel, ruling in a consolidated consideration of appeals from the two district court rulings, held that S.B. 1172 survived the constitutional challenges presented to the court, and remanded the two cases to the respective district court judges for further consistent proceedings.  Most significantly, the court ruled that the practice of SOCE, even though it mainly involves talking by the therapist and patient, is not “speech” protected by the First Amendment, but rather a medical practice that incidentally involves speech.  Pickup v. Brown, 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 18068, 2013 WL 4564249. 

Writing for the court, Circuit Judge Susan P. Graber began by providing a brief history of SOCE and summarizing the views of professional associations in mental health and related fields.  SOCE efforts date from a time when it was widely believed that homosexuality was a form of mental illness requiring a cure, and both “aversive” and “non-aversive” methods were tried to attempt to change an individual’s sexual orientation.  Among the most controversial aversive methods were lobotomies, shock treatment, and induced nausea.  These have been disavowed by most contemporary practitioners of SOCE, including the plaintiffs in these cases, who assert that their treatments rely almost entirely on speech.  As such, they claim a First Amendment right to be free of state regulation of the treatments.   Since the American Psychiatric Association voted in 1973 to remove homosexuality from its published list of mental disorders (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), other major professional health organizations have followed suit, and having declared that homosexuality is not a mental illness, the mainstream mental health professions have rejected SOCE as unnecessary and ineffective.  Furthermore, based mainly on anecdotal evidence, which was considered by California legislators when they enacted S.B. 1172, the professional associations now condemn SOCE as potentially harmful to patients.

The legislation does not impose criminal penalties on therapists for providing SOCE to minors, but as a matter of regulation mandates that such treatment not be provided by licensed therapists and makes it a basis for loss of a license for unprofessional conduct.  Judge Graber points out that the law leaves licensed therapists free to talk about SOCE, to recommend it to their minor clients (who would have to go out of state to receive such “treatment” from a licensed professional), to advocate it publicly, and event to refer a minor to a non-licensed individual such as a religious authority.  However, if they want to provide such treatment themselves, they must either “wait until the minor turns 18 or be subject to professional discipline.”  Thus, in the court’s view, the law “regulates the provision of medical treatment, but leaves mental health providers free to discuss or recommend treatment and to express their views on any topic.”

Regulations of conduct are treated differently from regulations of speech.  The plaintiffs argued that because the treatment consisted mainly of speech, the strict rules worked out by the courts to protect speech under the First Amendment should apply, putting a high burden on the legislature to justify this restriction.  The court disagreed, finding that past cases had drawn a distinction between mental health treatment and speech.  “We distill the following relevant principles” from prior cases, wrote Graber: “(1) doctor-patient communications about medical treatment receive substantial First Amendment protection, but the government has more leeway to regulate the conduct necessary to administer treatment itself; (2) psychotherapists are not entitled to special First Amendment protection merely because the mechanism used to deliver mental health treatment is the spoken word; and (3) nevertheless, communication that occurs during psychotherapy does receive some constitutional protection, but it is not immune from regulation.”

“Because SB 1172 regulates only treatment,” wrote Graber, “while leaving mental health providers free to discuss and recommend, or recommend against, SOCE, we conclude that any effect it may have on free speech interests is merely incidental.  Therefore, we hold that SB 1172 is subject to only rational basis review and must be upheld if it ‘bears a rational relationship to a legitimate state interest.’”  As to that, “protecting the physical and psychological well-being of minors, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth, and in protecting minors against exposure to serious harms caused by sexual orientation change efforts” was the interest stated by the legislature, and the court found that “protecting the well-being of minors is a legitimate state interest.”  Did legislators have a rational basis for concluding that this law could advance such an interest?  Surely yes, in light of the evidence considered by the legislature about the ineffectiveness of SOCE and its harmful effects.

The legislature relied heavily on a report compiled by an American Psychological Association Task Force, as well as formal resolutions adopted by “many other professional associations.”   With few exceptions, the mainstream of professional organizations in the medical and mental health fields has arrived at “the overwhelming consensus” that “SOCE was harmful and ineffective.”  Wrote Graber, “On this record, we have no trouble concluding that the legislature acted rationally by relying on that consensus.”

The court also disposed of various other arguments plaintiffs had raised.  It found that the relationship of doctor and patient did not amount to an “expressive association” meriting constitutional protection, that the measure was not unduly vague or overly broad, and that it did not abridge the fundamental rights of parents regarding the upbringing of their children.  “Although the plaintiffs argue that they cannot ascertain where the line is between what is prohibited and what is permitted – for example, they wonder whether the mere dissemination of information about SOCE would subject them to discipline – the text of SB 1172 is clear to a reasonable person.”

“Moreover,” Graber pointed out, “considering that SB 1172 regulates licensed mental health providers, who constitute ‘a select group of persons having specialized knowledge,’ the standard for clarity is lower.” 

As to the overbreadth argument, Graber reiterated that the effect of the law on speech was incidental to its regulation of medical practice, and “any incidental effect,” she wrote, “is small in comparison with the ‘plainly legitimate sweep’ of the ban.”

Finally, as to parental rights, she pointed out that the state has been upheld in a variety of contexts in imposing or prohibiting particular medical treatments.  For example, compulsory vaccination schemes have been upheld over the protest of parents, and the courts have stepped in to mandate medical treatments that were rejected by parents on religious grounds.  “We are unaware of any case that specifically addresses whether a parent’s fundamental rights encompass the right to choose for a child a particular type of provider for a particular treatment that the state has deemed harmful,” Judge Graber wrote, “but courts that have considered whether patients have the right to choose specific treatments for themselves have concluded that they do not.”  Clearly, parents’ rights concerning treatment for their children would not be greater than their rights concerning their own treatment.

Although it seems likely that the plaintiffs will seek further review, it is unlikely that the 9th Circuit would agree to delay further the implementation of the law pending such an appeal.

In addition to attorneys from the Attorney General’s Office, the law was defended by intervenors represented by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, whose legal director, Shannon Minter, participated in the oral argument before the 9th Circuit.  The case attracted amicus briefs from a wide range of professional groups, and all the major LGBT rights organizations participated in some form in the case.  The court’s decision may prove influential outside the 9th Circuit, as a legal challenge gets underway in New Jersey to a similar statute recently signed into law by Governor Chris Christie.

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