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Professors Rienzi and Destro Lead Students in First Amendment Litigation Win

 

On Jan. 28, a federal judge found that a Baltimore law imposing special speech restrictions on pro-life pregnancy counselors was unconstitutional. The decision capped off more than a year of successful litigation by a group of students and professors from CUA who have been taking their constitutional law studies from the classroom to the courtroom.                                                 

In Dec. 2009, Baltimore became the first jurisdiction in the country to enact a speech restriction that applies only to pro-life pregnancy counselors. Shortly thereafter, Catholic University law school’s Professor Mark Rienzi (left) published an article in CUA’s Journal of Contemporary Health Law and Policy, arguing that such laws violate the First Amendment. When Rienzi and faculty colleague Robert Destro (below left) were approached by pregnancy counselors looking to challenge the law, they saw an opportunity to use the case as a chance for CUA law students to earn supervised fieldwork credit while litigating a cutting-edge First Amendment case.
 
“The Baltimore law was the first of its kind, but it is part of a nationwide strategy of targeting pro-life pregnancy counselors for special regulations that don’t apply to pro-choice speakers,” said Rienzi. “We just thought it would be a great opportunity for CUA students to learn how to litigate by being involved in a big First Amendment case right in our backyard.” The CUA students and professors joined with two law firms in Baltimore (Gallagher, Evelius & Jones LLP, and Ferguson, Schetelich & Ballew, P.A.) to litigate the case.
 

One of those students is 3L Melodie Bales, who worked with the professors for credit in the spring semester of 2010. Bales participated in early strategy sessions on the case, drafted portions of the complaint, and wrote portions of the legal argument that eventually convinced the judge to grant summary judgment.

“It was a unique experience--one which I would highly recommend to students interested in litigation,” said Bales. “Not only was I able to draft pleadings and motions and construct legal arguments, but also I learned firsthand how these types of constitutional cases are litigated, which for me was the most valuable part of the internship.”

Third-year law student Blair Warner also worked on the case. Warner drafted legal arguments to rebut Baltimore city’s argument that speech about pregnancy is “commercial speech” and therefore entitled to less protection under the First Amendment. The court’s opinion cited several of the cases and arguments Warner had developed, and ultimately agreed that the speech is noncommercial and therefore fully protected by the First Amendment. 
 
"It was so exciting to use what I had learned in constitutional law and to apply it to a current case. It was even better because I really cared about the outcome of this case since I felt passionately that it was unfair to target only pro-life pregnancy speakers who are trying to provide alternative choices to women who may have nowhere else to turn,” said Warner.
 
Professors Rienzi and Destro are also working with students on several other First Amendment litigation projects, including a challenge to a similar Montgomery County law, a challenge to a regulation of public forum speech in Massachusetts, a challenge to an Illinois regulation forcing pharmacists to sell the “morning-after” pill even if they are barred by their religion from doing so, and a Supreme Court case concerning the constitutionality of an Arizona law that allows taxpayers to claim a tax credit for contributions to organizations that provide scholarships for children attending both religious and non-religious private schools.