Federal Appeals Court Strikes Down Physician Gag Law

Florida Law Restricted Questions About Guns in the Home

February 22, 2017 12:54 pm News Staff

In a ruling that supports a physician's First Amendment rights, a federal appeals court has overturned provisions of a Florida law that restricted physicians' ability to discuss firearm safety with patients.

The AAFP and other medical organizations objected to the Firearms Owners' Privacy Act, which imposed restrictions on asking patients about the presence of guns in the home and on making notes about the issue in patient records. The law threatened fines and possible license suspensions for violations.

On Feb. 16, the full panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit issued a 10-1 decision(media.ca11.uscourts.gov) striking down sections of the law that barred physicians from asking about firearms and recording the information in patient records unless the issue was relevant to patient safety, as well as sections barring them from unnecessarily harassing patients about firearm ownership.

The court upheld a provision of the law that bars physicians from discriminating against patients who own firearms. That provision could be applied in instances such as failing to return messages, charging patients who own firearms more for similar services or delaying appointments. As applied to this type of conduct rather than to physician speech, the court ruled, that section of the law passed constitutional muster.

In addition, the court found there was no evidence that physicians were taking firearms away from patients or otherwise infringing on patients' Second Amendment rights in any way.

The case has been winding its way through the federal court system since the Florida legislature passed the law in 2011.(www.flsenate.gov) A U.S. district court in Miami ruled the law unconstitutional and issued an injunction that prevented its implementation in 2012. Florida officials appealed, and a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit upheld the law in a 2-1 vote in 2014.

After the 2014 decision, the plaintiffs -- including AAFP member Bernd Wollschlaeger, M.D. -- filed a petition for rehearing before the full appeals court. The AAFP, along with several other medical associations, filed an amicus curiae ("friend of the court") brief in support of their position shortly thereafter.

The amicus brief argued that the law violates physicians' First Amendment rights. Being able to ask patients about unsecured firearms is essential to ensuring patient safety, especially if a child resides in the home, the medical groups said. The law needlessly interfered with the patient-physician relationship and undermined physicians' ethical obligations to their patients, they argued.

The latest ruling could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Related AAFP News Coverage
AAFP Joins Unified Effort on Gun Violence, Physician Free Speech
American Bar Association, Eight Health Organizations Partner on Initiative

(2/23/2015)

AAFP Joins Other Groups Seeking to Overturn Florida Law
(11/28/2012)

AAFP, Others Assail Measures That Interfere With Physician-Patient Relationship
Florida Legislation 'Represents Unwise Governmental Intrusion,' Groups Say

(5/27/2011)

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Familydoctor.org: Gun Safety(familydoctor.org)