Bruni v. City of Pittsburgh
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Description: A Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, censorship-zone law, similar to a Massachusetts law the U.S. Supreme Court struck down in 2014, prohibits speech and advocacy—including prayer—in painted zones outside medical facility entrances. The city chose to paint and enforce such censorship zones on the public sidewalk outside only two facilities in the entire metropolitan area—Pittsburgh’s two abortion facilities—targeting face-to-face conversations by pro-life sidewalk counselors.
US Supreme Court declines to take case concerning Pittsburgh’s censorship zone law
The law at issue in Bruni v. City of Pittsburgh prohibits speech and advocacy—including prayer—in painted zones outside medical facility entrances. The city chose to paint and enforce such censorship zones on the sidewalk outside only two facilities in the entire metropolitan area—Pittsburgh’s two abortion facilities—targeting face-to-face conversations by pro-life sidewalk counselors.
Recognizing the constitutional problems with such a ban in light of the 2014 Supreme Court ruling in McCullen v. Coakley, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit last year claimed to narrow the law to say that the ban doesn’t apply to sidewalk counseling, only patrolling, picketing, or demonstrating. It then upheld the ban—contrary to what the same court ruled six years ago when it first considered Pittsburgh’s law and observed that “the Ordinance imposes the same kind of burden on speech” as the Massachusetts law the Supreme Court struck down in McCullen. Because the 3rd Circuit’s decision still allowed for some speech to be censored, ADF attorneys asked the Supreme Court to take the case.
“The government can’t silence speakers just because it doesn’t like what they have to say,” said ADF Senior Counsel and Vice President of Appellate Advocacy John Bursch. “While we are pleased that Pittsburgh’s ordinance can’t be enforced against pro-life sidewalk counselors, the city shouldn’t be allowed to carve out space on public sidewalks and declare that certain topics and forms of speech are off limits there. As the Supreme Court declared as recently as 2018 in another ADF case, ‘the people lose when the government is the one deciding which ideas should prevail.’”
“The problem with the 3rd Circuit reinterpreting Pittsburgh’s law in order to save it, rather than rule against it for the obvious constitutional problems the court saw, is that Pittsburgh remains free to engage in censorship of constitutionally protected speech. We will be closely monitoring what the city does,” said ADF Senior Counsel Kevin Theriot, who argued the case before the 3rd Circuit. “As Justice Thomas pointed out, the court should revisit the question of ‘buffer zones’ because of the serious limits they impose on free speech.”
ADF attorneys filed the lawsuit against Pittsburgh in 2014 on behalf of pro-life individuals who were prohibited from speaking or engaging in sidewalk counseling within the zones. The city banned their speech in the zone while allowing others to talk about the weather, sports, or practically anything else. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto has been enforcing the law, which he voted for as a city councilman in 2005.
Lawrence G. Paladin, Jr., one of more than 3,400 attorneys allied with ADF, is serving as local counsel in the case for the pro-life sidewalk counselors.
- Pronunciation guide: Bruni (BROON’-ee), Theriot (TAIR’-ee-oh)
Alliance Defending Freedom is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith.
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John Bursch is senior counsel and vice president of appellate advocacy with Alliance Defending Freedom. Bursch has argued 12 U.S. Supreme Court cases and more than 30 state supreme court cases since 2011, and a recent study concluded that among all frequent Supreme Court advocates who did not work for the federal government, he had the 3rd highest success rate for persuading justices to adopt his legal position. Bursch served as solicitor general for the state of Michigan from 2011-2013. He has argued multiple Michigan Supreme Court cases in eight of the last ten terms and has successfully litigated hundreds of matters nationwide, including six with at least $1 billion at stake. As part of his private firm, Bursch Law PLLC, he has represented Fortune 500 companies, foreign and domestic governments, top public officials, and industry associations in high-profile cases, primarily on appeal. He received his J.D. magna cum laude in 1997 from the University of Minnesota Law School and is admitted to practice in numerous federal district and appellate courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court.
Kevin Theriot serves as senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, where he is vice president of the Center for Life. He has litigated cases in the areas of religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family. Theriot is admitted to the bar in eight states, the U.S. Supreme Court, and numerous other federal courts of appeal and district courts. Theriot received his law degree from Vanderbilt University and has been litigating First Amendment issues since 1993.