(CN) – Florida cannot enforce a controversial gun law that blocks doctors from asking patients questions about gun ownership and safety while providing medical care, a Miami federal judge ruled.
U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke ruled Wednesday that the law violates doctors’ and patients’ free-speech rights, and rejected Florida’s claim that gun-related questions infringe on firearm owners’ privacy.
The law, which took effect June 2, subjected doctors and health care facilities to penalties for recording and disclosing information about patients’ gun ownership, unless the questions were relevant to the patients’ medical care or safety. It also prohibited doctors from “harassing” patients about guns and “discriminating” against them based on gun ownership. Violators could face revocation of their medical license and fines of $10,000 per offense.
State legislators passed the law in reaction to an Ocala incident in which a physician gave the mother of a minor patient 30 days to find a new pediatrician after the mother refused to answer questions about firearms in her home. The state claimed that the law was needed to prevent harassment and discrimination by health care providers against patients based on gun ownership.
Florida physicians challenged the gun law, alleging that it prevented them from practicing preventive care, violated their free-speech rights and unnecessarily restricted the doctor-patient relationship.
In a June 24 complaint, doctors pointed out that the practice of preventive medicine requires them to routinely ask patients about potential health and safety risks, such as household chemicals, drugs, alcohol and firearms. They argued physicians have a “critical role” in counseling patients on safety risks and injury prevention.
State lawmakers insisted that the law allowed exceptions, such as asking people with mental problems about gun ownership. They claimed that the law did not prohibit doctors from asking about guns, or from offering advice on firearm safety, but rather urged practitioners to refrain from asking such questions in most cases.
The judge said Florida made a contradictory argument since the law provided for disciplinary action against doctors who ask patients about gun ownership in most cases. “Generally, laws that provide for disciplinary action in the case of violations or non-compliance are mandatory,” Cooke wrote.
The court also disagreed that the law protected the right of firearm owners to “keep arms” as guaranteed by the Second Amendment.
“The state has attempted to inveigle this court to cast this matter as a Second Amendment case,” Cooke wrote. “Despite the state’s insistence that the right to ‘keep arms’ is the primary constitutional right at issue in this litigation, a plain reading of the statute reveals that this law in no way affects such rights.”
Cooke pointed out that a doctor who counsels a patient on gun safety does not interfere with the patient’s right to possess or use firearms.
Florida had argued that the law merely regulated “professional speech” and did not violate the First Amendment by restricting private speech.
Cooke disagreed. “Laws on professional speech or occupational conduct, however, are generally directed at regulating the access or practice of a profession, not at burdening or censoring private, constitutionally protected speech on a particular subject matter,” the ruling states.
If doctors are concerned that patients might interpret unsolicited counseling on gun safety as “unnecessarily harassing,” they may censor themselves to avoid disciplinary action, according to the court, which said that would constitute an impermissible burden on the physicians’ speech.
Cooke found that Florida had failed to prove it had a compelling interest in protecting patients from questions about gun ownership.
“The state also fails to provide any specific evidence, beyond anecdotal information, that such ‘harassment’ and ‘discrimination’ is widespread or pervasive,” the 22-page ruling states. “It is unlikely that a concern for some patients who may be offended or uncomfortable by questions regarding firearm ownership could justify this law.”
What’s more, many state and federal laws that regulate gun ownership, possession and sale ask gun owners to provide personal information as a condition for obtaining a gun license, according to the order.
Cooke agreed that the plaintiffs’ suggestion, a law allowing patients to decline to answer questions about gun ownership, would be a less restrictive alternative to trampling physicians’ speech.
To protect patients from harassment, the law should target only offensive behavior, without regard to the content of the speech, the order states.
Cooke enjoined Florida from enforcing most provisions of the law, finding that the plaintiffs are likely to prove its unconstitutionality.
The judge declined to address the physicians’ arguments that the law was unconstitutionally vague and overbroad.
Gov. Rick Scott, who signed the law on June 2, told The Miami Herald that the state would appeal Cooke’s decision.