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Eleventh Circuit Upholds Florida's Patient Privacy Law

Thursday, November 6, 2014

In a victory for gun owners who simply seek medical care, not political philosophy, from their doctors, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has upheld the NRA-supported Florida’s Firearm Owner’s Privacy Act. This law was passed after an escalating series of events in which patients were harassed or denied access to services because they refused to be interrogated by their doctors about their ownership of firearms. The case, Wollschlaeger v. Governor of Florida, vindicated Florida’s attempt to protect patients from being forced to divulge personal information that is irrelevant to their own medical treatment.

In challenging the law, Dr. Wollschlaeger and the other plaintiffs insisted they had a First Amendment right to routinely grill patients on their choices concerning firearm ownership, without regard to any good faith belief such information was relevant to the patient’s individual case. They also alleged the law’s proscriptions were unconstitutionally vague.

The Court of Appeals rejected these claims.  “The essence of the Act,” the court’s opinion stated, “is simple: medical practitioners should not record information or inquire about patients’ firearm-ownership status when doing so is not necessary to providing the patient with good medical care.” Accordingly, the court determined that “[t]he Act merely circumscribes the unnecessary collection of patient information on one of many potential sensitive topics.”

As the court noted, nothing in the Florida law prohibits doctors from expressing their views about firearms or about any other medical or public policy issue. Rather, the law is within keeping of long-established “codes of conduct that define the practice of good medicine and affirm the responsibility that physicians bear” and “protects a patient’s ability to receive effective medical treatment without compromising the patient’s privacy with regard to matters unrelated to healthcare.”

The NRA participated in the case with a friend of the court brief in the Eleventh Circuit proceedings, and a number of the points it made are echoed in the majority opinion of the court. The brief challenged the plaintiffs’ case on several grounds, arguing that the physicians and organization do not have standing to bring the suit, that the Act does not violate the First Amendment, and that the Act is not unconstitutionally vague.

 

In arguing against the plaintiffs’ standing, the brief explained that the act does not “chill” the plaintiffs’ speech, as “the Act by its terms simply does not restrict the speech in which [the plaintiffs] wish to engage.” 

 

While disputing the plaintiffs’ First Amendment claims, the brief noted that the Act is a “reasonable regulation of speech incidental to the practice of medicine.” The NRA filing explained the Act serves the State’s interest in protecting the privacy of patients, as well as the patients’ exercise of Second Amendment rights. In concluding the First Amendment argument, the brief declared, “The Firearm Owners’ Privacy Act is another reasonable regulation of the medical practice. It exhorts doctors to stick to practicing medicine when examining patients, rather than pushing their own political agendas, and it protects patients from doctors who refuse to do so.”


Plaintiffs in the case have requested additional review before a full panel of the Eleventh Circuit, but the court has not yet ruled on the petition for rehearing. In the meantime, however, patients who prefer to focus on their symptoms, and not their doctors’ politics, in the examination room should have more reason to feel at ease. 

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