Free to talk to teens
Appeals court upholds counselors’ freedom of speech
Two Florida counselors have successfully challenged local laws that blocked them from talking to teenagers about unwanted same-sex attraction or gender confusion.
Family therapists Robert Otto and Julie Hamilton sued Palm Beach County and Boca Raton, Fla., over ordinances barring licensed counselors from talking to teens with the goal of changing or reducing same-sex attraction or behavior or embracing their God-given gender. The counselors contended the teens, many of whom held religious beliefs that conflicted with homosexual behavior or sex change, asked for help managing their feelings and behaviors.
The city and county argued the restrictions did not infringe on the counselor’s First Amendment rights because they only regulated conduct. But in a 2-1 opinion, a panel of judges of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. Judge Britt Grant, an appointee of President Donald Trump, wrote that the court previously rejected the practice of relabeling speech as conduct to avoid constitutional challenges.
“People have intense moral, religious, and spiritual views about these matters—on all sides,” she wrote. “And that is exactly why the First Amendment does not allow communities to determine how their neighbors may be counseled about matters of sexual orientation or gender.”
Last year, a U.S. district judge in Maryland rejected therapist Christopher Doyle’s challenge to a similar ban. Liberty Counsel’s Mat Staver, who represents Otto and Hamilton, as well, made the same argument before a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that he made in the Florida case: The regulations silence speech.
According to The Trevor Project, which bills itself as the world’s largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBT youth, 20 states and more than 80 localities have enacted laws to block counselors from trying to help young people manage same-sex attraction or gender dysphoria. Proponents of the laws argue that sexual orientation and gender identity are immutable and counseling someone to the contrary only increases the risk of suicide.
But researchers such as Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council, disagree. In a 2019 paper surveying the results of four studies, Sprigg concluded significant change to a person’s sexual orientation was possible. In one study cited by Sprigg, up to 38 percent of men and 53 percent of women “changed to heterosexuality” in a six-year period.
But while the academic debates rage, many counselors just want the opportunity to talk to teens about the topic.