Carey v. Population Services International/Concurrence Stevens

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Mr. Justice Stevens, concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.

For the reasons stated in Parts I, II, and III of the opinion of the Court, which I join, I agree that Population Planning Associates, Inc., has standing to challenge the New York statute and that the grant to licensed pharmacists of a monopoly in the distribution of nonmedical contraceptives is unconstitutional. I also agree with the conclusion that New York's prohibition against the distribution of contraceptives to persons under 16 years of age is unconstitutional, and with the Court's conclusion that the total suppression of advertising or display of contraceptives is invalid, but my reasons differ from those set forth in Part IV of Mr Justice Brennan's opinion and I wish to add emphasis to the limitation on the Court's holding in Part V.


There are two reasons why I do not join Part IV. First, the holding in Planned Parenthood of Missouri v. Danforth, 428 U.S. 52, 72-75, that a minor's decision to abort her pregnancy may not be conditioned on parental consent, is not dispositive here. The options available to the already pregnant minor are fundamentally different from those available to nonpregnant minors. The former must bear a child unless she aborts; but persons in the latter category can and generally will avoid childbearing by abstention. Consequently, even if I had joined that part of Planned Parenthood, I could not agree that the Constitution provides the same measure of protection to the minor's right to use contraceptives as to the pregnant female's right to abort.

Second, I would not leave open the question whether there is a significant state interest in discouraging sexual activity among unmarried persons under 16 years of age. Indeed, I would describe as "frivolous" appellees' argument that a minor has the constitutional right to put contraceptives to their intended use, notwithstanding the combined objection of both parents and the State.

For the reasons explained by Mr. Justice Powell, I agree that the statute may not be applied to married females between the ages of 14 and 16, or to distribution by parents. I am not persuaded, however, that these glaring defects alone justify an injunction against other applications of the statute. Only one of the three plaintiffs in this case is a parent who wishes to give contraceptives to his children. The others are an Episcopal minister who sponsors a program against venereal disease, and a mail-order firm, which presumably has no way to determine the age of its customers. I am satisfied, for the reasons that follow, that the statute is also invalid as applied to them.

The State's important interest in the welfare of its young citizens justifies a number of protective measures. See Planned Parenthood of Central Missouri v. Danforth, supra, at 102 (Stevens, J., concurring in part and dissenting in part). Such special legislation is premised on the fact that young persons frequently make unwise choices with harmful consequences; the State may properly ameliorate those consequences by providing, for example, that a minor may not be required to honor his bargain. It is almost unprecedented, however, for a State to require that an ill-advised act by a minor give rise to greater risk of irreparable harm than a similar act by an adult.[1]

Common sense indicates that many young people will engage in sexual activity regardless of what the New York Legislature does; and further, that the incidence of venereal disease and premarital pregnancy is affected by the availability or unavailability of contraceptives. Although young persons theoretically may avoid those harms by practicing total abstention, inevitably many will not. The statutory prohibition denies them and their parents a choice which, if available, would reduce their exposure to disease or unwanted pregnancy.

The State's asserted justification is a desire to inhibit sexual conduct by minors under 16. Appellants do not seriously contend that if contraceptives are available, significant numbers of minors who now abstain from sex will cease abstaining because they will no longer fear pregnancy or disease.[2] Rather appellants' central argument is that the statute has the important symbolic effect of communicating disapproval of sexual activity by minors.[3] In essence, therefore, the statute is defended as a form of propaganda, rather than a regulation of behavior.[4]

Although the State may properly perform a teaching function, it seems to me that an attempt to persuade by inflicting harm on the listener is an unacceptable means of conveying a message that is otherwise legitimate. The propaganda technique used in this case significantly increases the risk of unwanted pregnancy and venereal disease. It is as though a State decided to dramatize its disapproval of motorcycles by forbidding the use of safety helmets. One need not posit a constitutional right to ride a motorcycle to characterize such a restriction as irrational and perverse.

Even as a regulation of behavior, such a statute would be defective. Assuming that the State could impose a uniform sanction upon young persons who risk self-inflicted harm by operating motorcycles, or by engaging in sexual activity, surely that sanction could not take the form of deliberately injuring the cyclist or infecting the promiscuous child. If such punishment may not be administered deliberately, after trial and a finding of guilt, it manifestly cannot be imposed by a legislature, indiscriminately and at random. This kind of government-mandated harm, is, in my judgment, appropriately characterized as a deprivation of liberty without due process of law.


In Part V of its opinion, the Court holds that New York's total ban on contraceptive advertising is unconstitutional under Bigelow v. Virginia, 421 U.S. 809, and Virginia Pharmacy Bd. v. Virginia Citizens Consumer Council, 425 U.S. 748. Specifically, the Court holds that all contraceptive advertising may not be suppressed because some advertising of that subject may be offensive and embarrassing to the reader or listener. I also agree with that holding.

The Court properly does not decide whether the State may impose any regulation on the content of contraceptive advertising in order to minimize its offensive character. I have joined Part V of the opinion on the understanding that it does not foreclose such regulation simply because an advertisement is within the zone protected by the First Amendment.

The fact that a type of communication is entitled to some constitutional protection does not require the conclusion that it is totally immune from regulation. Cf. Young v. American Mini Theatres, Inc., 427 U. S. 50, 65-71 (opinion of Stevens, J.). An editorial and an advertisement in the same newspaper may contain misleading matter in equal measure. Although each is a form of protected expression, one may be censored while the other may not.

In the area of commercial speech—as in the business of exhibiting motion pictures for profit—the offensive character of the communication is a factor which may affect the time, place, or manner in which it may be expressed. Cf. Young v. American Mini Theatres, Inc., supra. The fact that the advertising of a particular subject matter is sometimes offensive does not deprive all such advertising of First Amendment protection; but it is equally clear to me that the existence of such protection does not deprive the State of all power to regulate such advertising in order to minimize its offensiveness. A picture which may appropriately be included in an instruction book may be excluded from a billboard.

I concur in the judgment and in Parts I, II, III, and V of the Court's opinion.


  1. . Only two other States have adopted similar legislation. Family Planning, Contraception and Voluntary Sterilization: An Analysis of Laws and Policies in the United States, Each State and Jurisdiction, A Report of the National Center for Family Planning Services 76 (1971) (DHEW Pub. No. (HSA) 74-16001). This publication contains a comprehensive survey of state laws in this area. The authors were aware of "no case in which either a doctor or a layman has been successfully prosecuted under any criminal statute for providing contraceptive information or services to a minor or has been held liable for damages for providing contraception to a minor without parental consent." Id., at 70. This survey also indicated that "the clear trend is toward the removal of all such barriers to the sale and distribution of contraceptives." Id., at 59. By 1971 there were 34 States with no law restricting or regulating distribution of contraceptives, ibid., and 33 States with no restrictions on advertising or display. Id., at 60.
  2. . Appellants make this argument only once, in passing. See Brief for Appellants 20. In the District Court, appellants candidly admitted that "there is no evidence that teenage extramarital sexual activity increases in proportion to the availability of contraceptives...." See 398 F. Supp. 321, 332. Indeed, appellants maintain that it is a "fact that youngsters will not use contraceptives even where available...." Reply Brief for Appellants 5.
  3. . The fact that the State admittedly has never brought a prosecution under the statute, id., at 2, is consistent with appellants' position that the purpose of the statute is merely symbolic.
  4. . Appellants present no empirical evidence to support the conclusion that the State's "propaganda" is effective. Simply as a matter of common sense, it seems unlikely that many minors under 16 are influenced by the mere existence of a law indirectly disapproving of their conduct.