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Federal Appeals Court Rules Laws Against Conversion Therapy Using Solely Speech Violate the First Amendment

Posted on: November 22nd, 2020 by Art Leonard No Comments

A three-judge panel of the Atlanta-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled on November 20 in Otto v. City of Boca Raton, 2020 U.S. App. LEXIS 36589, 2020 WL 6813994, that laws enacted by Boca Raton and Palm Beach County, Florida, prohibiting licensed therapists from performing conversion therapy on minors, violate the therapists’ rights to freedom of speech under the First Amendment.  The panel voted 2-1.  Two judges appointed by Donald Trump – Britt Grant and Barbara Lagoa – made up the majority.  Beverly Martin, appointed by Barack Obama, dissented.

Both of the local laws at issue were enacted in 2017.  In both cases, the local legislatures reviewed the voluminous professional literature condemning “sexual orientation change efforts” (SOCE), commonly called “conversion therapy,” as being fraudulent and causing potential harm to minors.  The legislatures concluded that this evidence was sufficient to justify outlawing the procedure.  Since local governments do not have authority to suspend or terminate a professional license granted by the state, instead they authorized fines to be imposed on licensed counselors who were found to have performed such “therapy.”  The local laws do not apply to unlicensed counselors, including religious counselors who are not required by the state to be licensed.

Nobody has actually been prosecuted under either law, but two licensed counselors, Robert W. Otto and Julie H. Hamilton, represented by lawyers from Liberty Counsel, an anti-LGBT legal organization, filed lawsuits claiming that the therapy they provide consists entirely of speech which cannot be outlawed by the government. They asserted that they do not claim that they can change a person’s sexual orientation, but that their therapy is intended to help their clients to “reduce same-sex behavior and attraction and eliminate what they term confusion over gender identity.”  They also asserted that their patients “typically” have religious beliefs that conflict with homosexuality and “seek SOCE counseling in order to live in congruence with their faith and to confirm their identity, concept of self, attractions, and behaviors to their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

The plaintiffs also argued that their equal protection rights were violated because unlicensed counselors were not prohibited from performing SOCE, and that the localities were preempted from passing any law regulating the practice of therapists licensed by the state.  They sought a preliminary injunction barring enforcement of the laws while the case was pending, which was denied to them by the district court.  This appeal to the 11th Circuit sought to overturn the district court ruling and get the preliminary injunction pending a final ruling on the merits of their claims.

Similar laws passed by several states and other localities have been upheld against 1st Amendment claims.  Both the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in King v. Governor of New Jersey, 767 F. 3d 216 (2014), ruling on a New Jersey statute, and the 9th Circuit in Pickup v. Brown, 740 F.3d 1208 (2014), ruling on a California statute, have rejected the argument that this “talk therapy” is shielded from state regulation by the First Amendment.  They have held that the incidental burden on therapists’ speech was justified within the government’s legitimate role of regulating the practices of licensed practitioners, and the 3rd Circuit, in particular, held that when therapists are using speech in the context of providing “therapy,” that is professional speech that comes within the sphere of regulatory authority.  Furthermore, these other courts have recognized the compelling interest of states in protecting minors from harm.

In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in a California case, National Institute of Life Advocates v. Becerra, 138 S. Ct. 2361, that a state law requiring reproductive health clinics that do not provide abortion services to provide their clients with information about the availability of such services from other providers, was an unconstitutional imposition of a speech requirement in violation of the 1st Amendment.  California sought to defend its law by invoking the concept of “professional speech” as falling within the sphere of legitimate state regulation.  Writing for the Court in that case, Justice Clarence Thomas rejected the idea that speech employed in the context of providing health care was a separate category of speech to be evaluated differently from other forms of speech that receive the full protection of the 1st Amendment.  He specifically criticized the 3rd and 9th Circuit conversion therapy opinions in this connection, rejecting the idea that speech should enjoy less robust constitutional protection because it was used by licensed counselors as their method of providing therapy.

Following Justice Thomas’s lead, the panel majority in this case held that the local laws should be reviewed under the “strict scrutiny” standard, as a content-based and viewpoint-based restriction on speech. This means that the laws would be treated as presumptively unconstitutional, placing the burden on the government to prove that they were necessary to achieving a compelling state interest and were narrowly tailored to avoid imposing unnecessary burdens on free speech.

Applying this strict scrutiny test, the majority of the panel concluded that the laws were unconstitutional.  Although Judge Britt Grant, writing for the majority, acknowledged that protecting children from harm is a compelling state interest, she rejected the argument that harm to children had been sufficiently shown to justify this abridgement of speech.

Pointing to the reports and studies that were considered by the legislatures in passing these laws, Grant wrote, “But when examined closely, these documents offer assertions rather than evidence, at least regarding the effects of purely speech-based SOCE.  Indeed, a report from the American Psychological Association [a Task Force Report from 2009], relied on by the defendants, concedes that ‘nonaversive and recent approaches to SOCE have not been rigorously evaluated.’  In fact, it found a ‘complete lack’ of ‘rigorous recent prospective research’ on SOCE.”  She also noted that the same report stated that “there are individuals who perceive they have been harmed and others who perceived they have benefited from nonaversive SOCE.’ What’s more, because of this ‘complete lack’ of rigorous recent research, the report concludes that it has ‘no clear indication of the prevalence of harmful outcomes among people who have undergone’ SOCE.”

“We fail to see,” Grant continued, “how, even completely crediting the report, such equivocal conclusions can satisfy strict scrutiny and overcome the strong presumption against content-based limitations on speech.”  Grant pointed out that people who claimed to have been harmed by SOCE practitioners can bring malpractice claims or file complaints with state regulators of professional practice, but he asserted that the state may not categorically outlaw the practice without stronger evidence that it actually causes harm.

When a plaintiff seeks a preliminary injunction barring enforcement of a challenged law before the trial court has ruled on the merits of the challenge, the plaintiff must show that it has stated a potentially valid claim and would suffer irreparable injury if the law can be enforced against them.  In this case, Judge Grant wrote, since the majority of the panel found the law to be unconstitutional, it was reversing the district court decision and sending the case back to the district court “for entry of a preliminary injunction consistent with this opinion.”

The dissenting judge, Beverly Martin, conceded that the challenged laws are subject to “strict scrutiny.”  In the face of Justice Thomas’s statements in the 2018 NIFLA decision, it seems likely that basing her dissent on the idea that these laws regulate professional conduct and not speech as such was not going to get anywhere.  But, she argued, this is that rare case where a statute that prohibits a form of speech based on its content and viewpoint could be justified as serving the compelling interest of protecting minors from harm.

She rejected the majority’s conclusion that the laws “restrict ideas to which children may be exposed” by pointing out that nothing in the laws prevents therapists from discussing with their minor patients “the perceived benefits of SOCE,” and also that the therapists “may recommend that their minor patients receive SOCE treatment from a provider elsewhere in Florida.”  The only limitation imposed by the laws was the actual practice of this “talk therapy” on their patients within the jurisdictions of Boca Raton and Palm Beach County.

Most of her dissent was devoted to dissecting the majority’s dismissive evaluation of the evidence on which the Boca Raton and Palm Beach County legislators had relied to find it necessary to ban conversion therapy in order to protect minors.  She rejected Judge Grant’s assertion that there is “insufficient evidence to conclude that SOCE is so harmful as to merit regulation.”  Pointing to the 2009 APA Task Force report, she quoted, “there was some evidence to indicate that individuals experienced harm from SOCE,” including nonaversive methods.  The Task Force Report went on to say that “attempts to change sexual orientation may cause or exacerbate distress and poor mental health in some individuals, including depression and suicidal thoughts.”  And the Report “catalogued recent studies reporting that patients who undergo SOCE experience negative consequences including ‘anger, anxiety, confusion, depression, grief, guilt, hopelessness, deteriorated relationships with family, loss of social support, loss of faith, poor self-image, social isolation, intimacy difficulties, intrusive imagery, suicidal ideation, self-hatred, and sexual dysfunction.’”

She was particularly critical of Grant’s heavy reliance on the Report’s comment about the lack of “rigorous recent prospective research” on SOCE.  First, she wrote, “what studies have been done ‘show that enduring change to an individual’s sexual orientation is uncommon,’ and that there is, in fact, already ‘evidence to indicate that individuals experience harm from SOCE.”

Perhaps more significantly, she pointed out that rigorous research would require an unethical methodology.  She wrote, “the APA has cautioned that ‘to conduct a random controlled trial of a treatment that has not been determined to be safe is not ethically permissible and to do such research with vulnerable minors who cannot themselves provide legal consent would be out of the question for institutional review boards to approve.”

“To be clear,” wrote Martin, “the very research the majority opinion seems to demand is ‘not ethically permissible’ to conduct.  Thus, one implication of the majority holding is that because SOCE is too dangerous to study, children can continue to be subjected to it.  The majority opinion has the result of inviting unethical research that is nowhere to be found in First Amendment jurisprudence.”

Further, she noted, there is “the recognition that homosexuality is not a mental illness as well as the particular vulnerability of minors as a test-study population.  All of this evidence leads to the inescapable conclusion that performing efficacy studies for SOCE on minors would be not only dangerous (by exposing children to a harmful practice known to increase the likelihood of suicide) but pointless (by studying a treatment for something that is not a mental-health issue).”

She also criticized the majority for focusing on comments selectively quoted from one APA Task Force report, and discounting that “SOCE is a practice that has already been deemed by institutions of science, research and practice” – listing nine of them – “to pose real risks of harm on children.  It is reasonable for the Localities to enact the Ordinances based on the existing evidentiary record as to harm.”

She rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that the Ordinances were either too overinclusive or underinclusive to survive strict scrutiny review.  “I believe the Localities’ narrow regulation of a harmful medical practice affecting vulnerable minors falls within the narrow band of permissibility,” she concluded,” asserting that the plaintiffs are not entitled to a preliminary injunction.

At this point, the Boca Raton and Palm Beach County governments have strategic decisions to make.  The “luck of the draw” exposed them to a three-judge panel whose majority were Trump appointees.  Since this opinion is out of step with rulings by other federal courts of appeals, it is possible that the 11th Circuit would grant a motion for reconsideration en banc.

However, at present, six Trump appointees are balanced by four Obama appointees, one Clinton appointee, and an appointee of George W. Bush, so the “Trump judges” make up exactly half of the 11th Circuit bench, and the chances that the full circuit would overturn this ruling seem slim.

The defendants could also directly petition the Supreme Court for review.  But in light of the current line-up of that Court, to take this issue to that Court directly would really be tempting fate and, in the past, the Supreme Court has declined to review the constitutionality of anti-SOCE laws from other jurisdictions.

This is the first federal court of appeals to part company from the many cases rejecting First Amendment challenges to  these laws, increasing the likelihood that the Supreme Court would grant review, which could produce (in a worst case scenario) an opinion invalidating all the existing U.S. laws against conversion therapy.  On the other hand, a Supreme Court opinion upholding the constitutionality of these laws could encourage the current campaign to get more state and local governments to adopt them.  But given the odds, it may be particularly prudent for the defendants not to appeal, let the preliminary injunction go into effect, and concentrate on putting together a strengthened evidentiary record on the harms that SOCE does to minors to make it more likely they will prevail on the merits before the district court.

The court received five amicus briefs, all defending the challenged laws.  Among the organizations signing the briefs were the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Southern Poverty Law Center, Equality Florida Institute, Inc., The Trevor Project, American Psychological Association, Florida Psychological Association, National Association of Social Workers, National Association of Social Workers Florida Chapter, and American Association For Marriage and Family Therapy.