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The Baltimore inquisition [Commentary]

Laws and LegislationAbortion IssueGovernmentDemocracy

What if any time a citizen spoke at a city council meeting to oppose a policy, the city could later order the citizen to go to court, produce all his private emails, and be interrogated by the city's lawyer?

That would be a great policy … if your goal was to suppress citizen participation in the democratic process and let corrupt government officials do whatever they want because the people are too afraid to watch over Big Brother's shoulder.

Yet that is what the city of Baltimore is trying to do right now to non-profit organizations that oppose abortion — and that are not even located in Baltimore or Maryland.

In 2010, the Baltimore City Council passed an ill-fated ordinance forcing non-profit, pro-life organizations in Baltimore, who offer free help and information to women, to include the city's abortion-friendly messages in the middle of their own communications.

Predictably, the city faced a lawsuit. The First Amendment does not allow the government to force you to speak its message. That's especially true when you aren't selling anything but are simply engaged in public advocacy of your own.

In such a case, the government is on trial. It must justify its law under the Constitution or else the law must be struck down to give freedom back to the people.

But that's when the city of Baltimore did something shocking. At the end of May, it served subpoenas in Missouri, Ohio and Virginia claiming the right to drag pro-life speakers from all over the nation into this case. It demanded that they testify and hand over thousands of emails and documents about their pro-life advocacy.

This prompted Alliance Defending Freedom to come to the defense of pro-life groups Care Net, Heartbeat International, the National Institute of Family and Life Advocates and the Vitae Foundation. All four groups contend that that city is wrong to subpoena organizations that are not parties to their lawsuit, have no offices in the city, and are located across the country.

But even worse, the only reason Baltimore thinks it can bully these national pro-life groups is because the city tried to coerce the speech of its own citizens in the first place.

No government can attack speech locally and then, when forced to justify its attack, roam the countryside conscripting other free speakers into involuntary servitude to help the city defend its unconstitutional actions.

While located in other states, these pro-life organizations have exchanged ideas with Baltimore pro-life advocates, and some of them testified against the city's coerced speech ordinance. That can't justify the city's harassment tactics, however. The First Amendment would be turned on its head if a city could drag citizens into court just for associating and speaking with like-minded people.

The city's pro-abortion allies like to claim that pro-life groups are not trustworthy. But even if you are not pro-life, do you want the government setting up its own "Grand Inquisitor" who can decide what "truth" is on abortion or other issues and then punish anyone who disagrees?

No city should be able to demand the emails, files, and testimony of a pro-life organization with which it disagrees, especially after the city got in trouble for violating the First Amendment in the first place.

Matt Bowman is senior legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom at its Center for Life in Washington, D.C. His email is media@alliancedefendingfreedom.org.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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