Limits on the First Amendment: Doctors and Free Speech

Mattie Bono (SCR ’19)

In the past few years, courts have begun to address vital questions regarding the First Amendment. Does the First Amendment protect every citizen in every capacity, or are there restrictions concerning professional spaces and spheres? Recently, questions have been raised regarding restrictions on a doctor’s free speech. Do doctors have the same right to free speech in the examination room as they do out in the civilian world? Even more specifically, the question arose regarding whether a doctor can ask a patient about household gun ownership. In the state of Florida, this contentious debate became a legal issue.

In June of 2011, the Firearm Owner’s Privacy Act became law in the state of Florida, and this law detailed that doctors “should refrain from making a written inquiry or asking questions concerning the ownership of a firearm or ammunition.” The National Rifle Association was the largest proponent for implementing this law, as they believed that questions about gun ownership unfairly discriminated against and villainized firearms. Immediately after enacting this law, doctors sued the governor for a violation of their First Amendment rights in the case Wollschlaeger v. Governor of Florida. The lower courts ruled in favor of Florida, and the petitioner appealed the case to the 11th Circuit. The 11th Circuit once again ruled in favor of the state in 2014. These rulings establish a precedent where the First Amendment’s protection does not apply to a large scope of speech, and that doctors do not have a “generalized interest in being able to speak freely.”

Since the inception of our democracy, we have never stopped negotiating what freedoms mean in the application of our daily lives. We have long understood the First Amendment, along with other freedoms, to come with limitations. We have decided that certain types of speech, like obscenity and libel, are not protected by the Constitution. Where we interpret limitations within our constitutional rights is where we shape our society and our future. This case regarding doctors’ freedom of speech takes traditional limitations a step further in its application of restrictions on one specific group. What could this new interpretation of constitutional rights mean for the future of our freedoms and liberties?

On February 17th, 2017, the 11th Circuit court overturned the 2014 panel decision. This decision established that it was not a violation of Second Amendment rights to have doctors choose to ask about gun ownership and that it was indeed a violation of doctors’ First Amendment rights to restrict their examination questions about firearms. This ruling acknowledges that specifically targeting limitations on freedoms for certain groups is not in line with our Constitution.

Constitutional interpretation has never been under stricter scrutiny. The legal and non-legal worlds alike have questioned how our Constitution will fit into changing times, and how it can continue to protect the freedoms and liberties of American citizens. The case of doctors’ First Amendment right is important as it finds its way into the canon of Constitutional interpretation in the modern era.  This ruling will mark as a cornerstone in future debates surrounding constitutional interpretation, making it key in understanding modern freedoms. Under legal scrutiny, cases like these can completely reshape our country’s understanding of the First Amendment.

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