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Judge closes book on disputed abortion law

In a case that focused heavily on First Amendment rights, a federal judge has issued a permanent injunction against a 2016 abortion law approved by Florida lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, who granted a preliminary injunction against the law in September, issued the permanent injunction last week and ordered the state to pay attorney fees for a group of plaintiffs who challenged the measure.

The permanent injunction came after attorneys for the state and the plaintiffs filed a joint motion last month indicating the state did not want to continue contesting the issues in the preliminary injunction.

“In order to spare the parties and the court the cost and burden of further litigation, plaintiffs and defendants have reached an agreement for the court to convert the preliminary injunction into a permanent injunction … enter a declaratory judgment in plaintiffs’ favor, and retain jurisdiction over an award of attorneys’ fees, if necessary, thereby resolving all the claims,” the June 22 joint motion said.

Hinkle’s order last week, like the preliminary injunction, found disputed parts of the law unconstitutional. The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit in December 2016 on behalf of several clergy members and abortion-rights organizations.

The law, in part, sought to require people or groups who provide information about abortions — considered “referral or counseling” agencies under the law — to register with the Agency for Health Care Administration and pay a $200 fee.

It also sought to require anyone who counsels women about abortions to provide an explanation about the procedure, including alternatives, before making referrals or assisting in obtaining abortions.

Hinkle in the September ruling agreed that the law could affect the plaintiffs, including the clergy members who sometimes counsel people about abortion.

“At least on a literal reading of (the law), all of the challenged provisions apply to these plaintiffs and will require the plaintiffs to take prompt action unless enforcement of the statute is enjoined,” Hinkle wrote in September. “The plaintiffs will be required to register and pay the attendant fee. When they refer an individual to an abortion clinic, they will be required to engage in compelled speech — to give a full and detailed explanation of abortion, including the effects of and alternatives to abortion, whatever that means — and will be subject to prosecution if they fail to do so. And if they refer a minor to an abortion clinic, they will be required to notify and provide the same information to the minor’s parents or guardian.”

Hinkle found that the law violated the plaintiffs’ free-speech rights.

“(The) state has no legitimate interest, let alone a compelling interest, in requiring disclosure of private religious speech of this kind,” he wrote in September. “The statute is a naked effort to impede speech on a disfavored topic promoting a disfavored but legal viewpoint.”

The News Service of Florida provides journalists, lobbyists, government officials and other civic leaders with comprehensive, objective information about the activities of state government year-round.

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