Oklahoma law allows for individuals to bring a lawsuit if they believe someone has obtained an abortion or assisted someone in obtaining an abortion. This citizen-enforcement provision in Oklahoma’s strict abortion law is leading to a climate of fear in which individuals and institutions must curtail their speech – or risk becoming the targets of ruinous litigation.
Whatever one’s views on abortion – and members of Protect The 1st are pro-life and pro-choice – we all agree that empowering citizens to regulate what can and cannot be said with lawsuits is a remarkably bad idea sure to yield bad results.
Case in point: In July, library workers in the Oklahoma Metropolitan Library System (MLS) were instructed not to provide abortion-related information to the public. The order follows a six-week abortion ban signed by Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt, as well as Oklahoma’s “trigger law” total abortion ban, which was activated after the Supreme Court in Dobbs overturned Roe v. Wade in June.
The order pertains to potential liability concerns. One internal email reads: “If a staff member gives any information on how to obtain an abortion, then that person may be found personally liable and will also make MLS liable … Civil penalties include a $10,000 fine plus jail time and the staff member will lose their job due to being informed by MLS and disregarding the warning.”
A library resembles a limited-purpose public forum in which librarians are tasked with answering (though not initiating) questions. The state government, as the manager, has the right to set the scope and character of employees’ actions in fulfilling that task. The problem with the Oklahoma law, whatever one thinks of abortion, is that it allows litigious individuals to define the acceptable limits of speech. Thus, this law clearly abridges the First Amendment.
After the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling, state senators in South Carolina introduced legislation that would make it a crime to provide information over the internet or phone about how to obtain an abortion. It would also make it a crime to host a website that is “reasonably likely to be used for an abortion” directed at pregnant women in the state. On a different controversial topic, California just outlawed “marketing” guns to youth, which restricts speech centered around rifle and sports clubs for young people.
Such efforts to regulate speech about any controversial topic are misguided and veer in the direction of a police state. Once restrictions on speech are regarded as acceptable, don’t be surprised when lawmakers on all sides wield them against political opponents.