On January 30, U.S. Magistrate Judge Amanda Arnold Sansone (M.D. Fla., Tampa Div.), issued a Report and Recommendation to the U.S. District Court, recommending that the court issue a limited preliminary injunction barring the City of Tampa, Florida, from enforcing its Ordinance banning licensed health care professionals from performing conversion therapy on minors. The Ordinance forbids all kinds of therapy for the purpose of attempting to change a person’s sexual orientation or to reduce or eliminate same-sex attraction. Judge Sansone concluded, relying on the 1st Amendment’s free speech provision, that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail regarding the type of therapy they claim to provide: non-coercive, consensual “talk therapy,” eschewing electro-shock or other aversion therapy methods, and that failure to enjoin the Ordinance would cause irreparable injury to the plaintiffs by restraining their freedom of speech. Vazzo v. City of Tampa, Case No. 8:17-cv-2896-T-02AAS. Plaintiffs are represented by Liberty Counsel, a right-wing Christian advocacy law firm.
In addition to Robert L. Vazzo, a Florida-licensed marriage and family therapist, plaintiffs include David Pickup, who holds a similar license from California, where his practice of conversion therapy has been prohibited by state law. Pickup alleges that he is seeking Florida licensure. Also suing is New Hearts Outreach Tampa Bay, a Christian organization that refers people to licensed therapists for conversion therapy. Equality Florida, a state-wide LGBT rights advocacy group, sought to intervene in defense of the Ordinance, but its attempt was rejected by Judge Sanson and District Judge Charlene Edwards Honeywell, so it is participating only in an amicus capacity. Of course, the City of Tampa’s legal representative is defending the Ordinance. As a preliminary matter, Judge Sansone concluded that plaintiffs were unlikely to succeed on their claim that the Tampa City Council lacked subject matter jurisdiction to pass the law. She found that the legislature’s regulation of mental health services does not expressly preempt the field, and that implied preemption is disfavored.
Judge Sansone’s recommendation for injunctive relief flies in the face of rulings by the U.S. Courts of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit and the 9th Circuit, which rejected 1st Amendment challenges to similar state laws. In Pickup v. Brown, 740 F.3d 1208 (2014), the 9th Circuit rejected Dr. Pickup’s 1st Amendment attack on California’s conversion therapy ban, finding that the statute was primarily a regulation of conduct by health care providers, which only incidentally affected professional speech. Subjecting the statute to rational basis review, the court found the state’s interest in protecting minors from harmful effects of conversion therapy that were documented in the legislative process by studies and reports and professional opinions were sufficient to meet the rational basis test. In King v. Governor of New Jersey, 767 F.3d 216 (2014), the 3rd Circuit differed from the 9th Circuit and decided the state was a content-based regulation of speech, but that it was “professional speech” in the context of a pervasively regulated profession – health care –and was thus subject only to heightened scrutiny, not strict scrutiny. The 3rd Circuit found that New Jersey had a substantial interest in protecting its citizens from harmful professional practices, relying on the same kind of evidence that was considered in the California case. Thus, in both cases, the 1st Amendment challenges were unsuccessful because the courts found sufficient justification for the legislature’s action. Both cases were denied review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
While acknowledging these2014 rulings in other circuits, Judge Sansone put greater weight on two more recent cases. In Wollschlaeger v. Governor of Florida, 848 F.3d 1293 (2017), the 11th Circuit, with binding appellate authority on a Florida District Court, found that Florida’s law prohibiting doctors from asking their patients whether they had firearms in their homes was a content-based regulation of speech that failed heightened scrutiny. As described by Judge Sansone, “the challenged provision failed to address concerns identified by the six anecdotes the legislature relied on when passing the law.” However, the more weighty recent precedent is National Institute of Family and Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Becerra, 138 S. Ct. 2361 (2018), in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a California law that requires “pregnancy centers” to inform their patients that free or low-cost abortions are available from the state government was unconstitutional as a form of compelled speech. California sought to defend its law using the same sort argument thatt prevailed in the Pickup case: that the statute was a regulation of health care practice, only incidentally affecting professional speech, but this argument did not save the statute.
Wrote Judge Sansone: “NIFLA expressly rejected the analyses in Pickup and King recognizing “professional speech” as a separate category of speech subject to differing constitutional analysis. Instead, professional speech is usually given less protection if it is commercial speech or if a law regulates professional conduct that incidentally involves speech. Although stating traditional strict scrutiny analysis applies to a content-based law that regulates neither commercial speech nor conduct that incidentally involves speech, NIFLA applied intermediate scrutiny to the California law requiring pregnancy centers to post notices.” The Supreme Court had stated that it was not necessary to determine whether strict scrutiny should be applied because, in its view, the law did not even survive intermediate scrutiny.
Taking these cases together, Judge Sansone concluded that the Tampa Ordinance is, at least as applied to “talk therapy” as described by the plaintiffs, a content-based regulation of speech that should be subject to strict scrutiny. She noted in support of this conclusion that the Tampa Ordinance itself refers to the counseling at which it is aimed as “professional speech” in a findings provision explaining that it would be “subject to a lower level of judicial scrutiny.” Judge Sansone’s assertion that this is thus a strict scrutiny case appears to go beyond the authorities upon which she claims to rely, since neither of them applied strict scrutiny or held it was appropriate in a comparable context.
However, proceeding to apply strict scrutiny, she found the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits, at least as to talk therapy that is non-coercive and consensual, even though she found that the Ordinance serves a compelling governmental interesting in protecting the physical and psychological well-being of minors. This is because in a strict scrutiny case, the content-based law has to be “narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest.” She continued, “The court will not assume plausible alternatives will fail to protect a compelling interest,” and found nothing in the legislative record to suggest that this law was enacted as “the least restrictive means” to achieve the government’s purpose. “If a less restrictive means would serve the compelling governmental interest,” she wrote, “the government must use that alternative.” She found plaintiffs were likely to prevail on their argument that an across-the-board ban of all kinds of SOCE techniques was unduly broad, giving credence to their suggestion that the City could accomplish its goal by banning aversion therapy techniques while allowing talk therapy, and by requiring informed consent from minors and their parents. Without explaining why, Judge Sansone appeared to accept the plaintiffs’ argument that “talk therapy” seeking to change sexual orientation is not harmful to minors, a point that the defendant and amici will sharply contest in a trial of the merits of this case. Also contestable is the contention that there is meaningful consent by minors whose perhaps parents persuade or compel them to submit to conversion therapy.
She also found that plaintiffs were likely to prevail on their claim that the ordinance is a form of viewpoint discrimination and is overbroad. Once again, she appears to buy into the plaintiffs’ contentions that “talk therapy” is not a waste of the patient’s time or potentially harmful. (This despite a ruling she does not discuss, the JONAH case, in which a New Jersey trial court found that SOCE practitioners’ representations of being able to change people’s sexual orientation is a form of fraud in violation of the state’s consumer protection law.) She also considered the ordinance to be potentially a prior restraint of protected speech and unconstitutionally vague.
As to the other grounds for preliminary injunctive relief, she found that any restraint on protected speech causes irreparable harm to the persons whose speech is suppressed, and that the equities in this case tipped in favor of the plaintiffs because the harm to them outweighs any harm to the City. “The City, however, failed to show any harm it may suffer if enforcement of Ordinance 2017-47 is enjoined,” she wrote. “The City and Equality Florida instead focus on potential harm to non-defendants, especially minors, if the Ordinance is enjoined.” But this overlooks the traditional role of government as a protector of the health and welfare of minors under the parens patriae doctrine; the Ordinance was adopted in pursuit of that function, based on evidence offered in the legislative process that conversion therapy is not merely fraudulent but also harmful to minors. The court exclaimed that it is not in the public interest to enforce an unconstitutional statute, but there has been on finding on the merits after trial that this statute is unconstitutional, and there surely is a public interest in protecting minors from harm.
Reciting the doctrine that injunctions should be “no broader than necessary to avoid the harm on which the injunction is based,” Judge Sansone recommended that the injunction be narrowly focused on protecting the practice of “non-coercive talk therapy,” and allow to be enforced against therapy that is coercive or goes beyond talk. As she phrased it, “The plaintiffs’ motion for preliminary injunction should be granted to the extent that the City should be enjoined from enforcing Ordinance 2017-47 against mental health professionals who provide non-coercive, non-aversive SOCE counseling – which consists entirely of speech, or ‘talk therapy’ – to minors within city limits.” The City will have an opportunity to contest this recommendation when it is presented to the district judge.