Texas Abortion Law Will Chill Online Advocacy Efforts for Reproductive Rights

In addition to the drastic restrictions it places on a woman’s reproductive and medical care rights, the new Texas abortion law, SB8, will have devastating effects on online speech.

The law creates a cadre of bounty hunters who can use the courts to punish and silence anyone whose online advocacy, education, and other speech about abortion draws their ire. It will undoubtedly lead to a torrent of private lawsuits against online speakers who publish information about abortion rights and access in Texas, with little regard for the merits of those lawsuits or the First Amendment protections accorded to the speech. Individuals and organizations providing basic educational resources, sharing information, identifying locations of clinics, arranging rides and escorts, fundraising to support reproductive rights, or simply encouraging people to consider all their options — now have to consider the risk that they might be sued for merely speaking. The result will be a chilling effect on speech and a litigation cudgel that will be used to silence those who seek to give people truthful information about their reproductive options.

SB8, also known as the Texas Heartbeat Act, encourages private persons to file lawsuits against anyone who “knowingly engages in conduct that aids or abets the performance or inducement of an abortion.” It doesn’t matter whether that person “knew or should have known that the abortion would be performed or induced in violation of the law,” that is, the law’s new and broadly expansive definition of illegal abortion. And you can be liable even if you simply intend to help, regardless, apparently, of whether an illegal abortion actually resulted from your assistance.

And although you may defend a lawsuit if you believed the doctor performing the abortion complied with the law, it is really hard to do so. You must prove that you conducted a “reasonable investigation,” and as a result “reasonably believed” that the doctor was following the law. That’s a lot to do before you simply post something to the internet, and of course you will probably have to hire a lawyer to help you do it.

SB8 is a “bounty law”: it doesn’t just allow these lawsuits, it provides a significant financial incentive to file them. It guarantees that a person who files and wins such a lawsuit will receive at least $10,000 for each abortion that the speech “aided or abetted,” plus their costs and attorney’s fees. At the same time, SB8 may often shield these bounty hunters from having to pay the defendant’s legal costs should they lose. This removes a key financial disincentive they might have had against bringing meritless lawsuits.

Moreover, lawsuits may be filed up to six years after the purported “aiding and abetting” occurred. And the law allows for retroactive liability: you can be liable even if your “aiding and abetting” conduct was legal when you did it, if a later court decision changes the rules. Together this creates a ticking time bomb for anyone who dares to say anything that educates the public about, or even discusses, abortion online.

Given this legal structure, and the law’s vast application, there is no doubt that we will quickly see the emergence of anti-choice trolls: lawyers and plaintiffs dedicated to using the courts to extort money from a wide variety of speakers supporting reproductive rights.

And unfortunately, it’s not clear when speech encouraging someone to or instructing them how to commit a crime rises to the level of “aiding and abetting” unprotected by the First Amendment. Under the leading case on the issue, it is a fact-intensive analysis, which means that defending the case on First amendment grounds may be arduous and expensive.

The result of all of this is the classic chilling effect: many would-be speakers will choose not to speak at all for fear of having to defend even the meritless lawsuits that SB8 encourages. And many speakers will choose to take down their speech if merely threatened with a lawsuit, rather than risk the law’s penalties if they lose or take on the burdens of a fact-intensive case even if they were likely to win it.

The law does include an empty clause providing that it may not be “construed to impose liability on any speech or conduct protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, as made applicable to the states through the United States Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.” While that sounds nice, it offers no real protection—you can already raise the First Amendment in any case, and you don’t need the Texas legislature to give you permission. Rather, that clause is included to try to insulate the law from a facial First Amendment challenge — a challenge to the mere existence of the law rather than its use against a specific person. In other words, the drafters are hoping to ensure that, even if the law is unconstitutional — which it is — each individual plaintiff will have to raise the First Amendment issues on their own, and bear the exorbitant costs — both financial and otherwise — of having to defend the lawsuit in the first place.

One existing free speech bulwark — 47 U.S.C. § 230 (“Section 230”) — will provide some protection here, at least for the online intermediaries upon which many speakers depend. Section 230 immunizes online intermediaries from state law liability arising from the speech of their users, so it provides a way for online platforms and other services to get early dismissals of lawsuits against them based on their hosting of user speech. So although a user will still have to fully defend a lawsuit arising, for example, from posting clinic hours online, the platform they used to share that information will not. That is important, because without that protection, many platforms would preemptively take down abortion-related speech for fear of having to defend these lawsuits themselves. As a result, even a strong-willed abortion advocate willing to risk the burdens of litigation in order to defend their right to speak will find their speech limited if weak-kneed platforms refuse to publish it. This is exactly the way Section 230 is designed to work: to reduce the likelihood that platforms will censor in order to protect themselves from legal liability, and to enable speakers to make their own decisions about what to say and what risks to bear with their speech.

But a powerful and dangerous chilling effect remains for users. Texas’s anti-abortion law is an attack on many fundamental rights, including the First Amendment rights to advocate for abortion rights, to provide basic educational information, and to counsel those considering reproductive decisions.

EFF will keep a close eye on the lawsuits the law spurs and the chilling effects that accompany them. If you experience such censorship, please contact [email protected]