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July 5, 2011

Privacy v. Free Speech in Florida

With a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court in recent years supporting a robust understanding of the First Amendment’s protection of the freedom of expression, it’s interesting to see that some state legislatures remain unbowed. In the term just ended, for example, the Court struck down state regulations limiting the sale of violent video games to children, as well efforts to publicly fund election campaigns and to prevent data mining of physician prescription records.

And now comes Florida and its new law aimed at protecting the privacy of firearm owners. Signed into law last month by Governor Rick Scott, the law prohibits physicians from inquiring of their patients about such matters as “the ownership of a firearm or ammunition by the patient or by a family member of the patient,” or “the presence of a firearm in a private home or other domicile of the patient or a family member of the patient.” (An exception may be made if the doctor “in good faith believes the information is relevant to a patient’s medical care or safety, or the safety of others.”)

In addition, the law prohibits doctors from entering into a patient’s medical records information about the subject of gun ownership, if that information “is not relevant to the patient’s medical care or safety, or the safety of others,” and it prohibits doctors from “unnecessarily harassing” patients in the subject of “firearm ownership.” Violations of these provisions may expose a physician potentially to revocation of the license to practice, administrative fines in the thousands of dollars, and letters of reprimand.

Unsurprisingly, this law is vulnerable to a First Amendment challenge—and it has already been challenged by several physicians and medical organizations. The prohibition is an express, content-based restriction on the speech of qualified medical professionals seeking to make determinations within their realm of expertise about how best to care for their patients. The critical question will be whether the state can assert an interest sufficiently compelling to justify the speech prohibition.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last month in a case called Sorrell v. IMS Health may be particularly instructive on this question. Sorrell concerned a Vermont law enacted to restrict the sale, disclosure, and use of pharmacy records that revealed the prescription practices of individual doctors. The Court concluded that, because the state allowed such records to be made available for other reasons, the law discriminated against certain speakers—namely, the data miners who sought the prescription record information for commercial purposes. Among the interests the state asserted as justifying the law was the privacy of the doctor-patient relationship, but the Court was unconvinced that the restriction sufficiently promoted this interest.

In light of Sorrell, it’s not clear that protecting the privacy of firearm owners would be deemed so important as to convince a court to uphold the Florida law. The expression the Sorrell Court deemed protected was commercial speech, traditionally subject to broader regulation than other forms of expression. If privacy was not a sufficient justification for restricting commercial speech, it is probably not a sufficient justification for restricting speech, like a doctor’s legitimate medical inquiries, that traditionally has received more protection under the First Amendment.

This is not to say that privacy is not an important value. But many cases involving constitutionally protected individual rights present a choice between competing and important interests, and it falls to the courts to determine which interest should prevail in a given instance. As recent cases have demonstrated, the Roberts Court almost always values free speech over other interests. Whether the Court will someday encounter an obstacle on its free speech campaign remains to be seen, but it is not likely to be the Florida law protecting the privacy of firearms owners.

Lawrence Friedman

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