Late last year, Debbie Pulley sued the Georgia Board of Nursing after it ordered her to stop describing herself as a Certified Professional Midwife. This week, her challenge came to a successful end after the board agreed to end its speech ban and stop punishing Georgia midwives like Debbie, who accurately describe themselves and their credentials.
After receiving her certification as a midwife in 1995 and helping mothers deliver over 1,000 babies throughout her career, Debbie shifted her focus in recent years to advocating for midwifery care—mainly due to a 2015 change in Georgia law limiting the practice of midwifery to licensed nurses. As thanks for her advocacy, the Board of Nursing sent Debbie a cease and desist order to stop describing herself as a midwife, Certified Professional Midwife, and CPM. Because of the board’s egregious speech ban, Debbie was threatened with a $500 fine each time she accurately and truthfully described herself as a midwife.
Aside from being grossly unfair, the board’s speech ban also violated the First Amendment. Under Supreme Court precedent, whenever the government regulates the content of a person’s speech—in this case, regulating particular words like “midwife”—the government must satisfy the highest degree of judicial scrutiny. Few speech restrictions manage to pass muster under such “strict” scrutiny.
The Supreme Court has even protected false speech from content regulation, ruling in an earlier case that when the government worries about misinformation, “the ordinary course in a free society” is more speech, not less. Banning speech is hardly ever the best option, and it can never be the first one the government tries. Instead, the court said, “The response to the unreasoned is the rational; to the uninformed, the enlightened; to the straight-out lie, the simple truth.” Yet here, the Georgia Board of Nursing attempted to ban the truth, forcing Debbie to lie, stay silent, or sue.
Fortunately, as a result of Debbie’s fearlessness in taking on the government in court, she achieved a happy outcome for herself and other non-practicing Georgia midwives. Thanks to Debbie’s efforts—and the board seeing the constitutional writing on the wall—she can now truthfully describe herself and her credentials going forward.