Pittsburgh Bans Conversion Therapy for Minors. Is It Professional Regulation or Censorship? (Or Both!)

There are consequences for telling professionals what they're legally permitted to talk about.


Stephanie Swartz /

Pittsburgh has joined a handful of states and other cities this week by legislatively banning the professional practice of conversion therapy for minors—that's counseling that seeks or claims to cure gay people of their homosexuality or transgender people of their feelings of being the opposite sex.

The practice is widely discredited by professional counseling and mental health organizations. Not only does it probably not work, many therapists believe it is actively harmful to the mental health of its subject. In America, it's heavily tied to religious efforts to cure followers of unwanted sexual urges, and it is often (but not always) pushed on teens by the parents.

I have been—and remain—a critic of these laws, not because I support conversion therapy (I agree with the mental health experts completely), but because I'm very concerned about the consequences of government control over subjective psychological treatments that are significantly speech-related. This law tells licensed therapists in Pittsburgh that they literally cannot talk to minor patients about a particular subject.

There are a couple of indicators that government is well aware that they're regulating and censoring speech, even as they insist it's about stopping fraud. First of all, the law (as the other laws have been passed) only covers minors. The argument is that the treatment is fraudulent and dangerous, but if adults want to partake in it, go ahead. But minors often get put into conversion therapy against their will by parents and there are consent issues involved (a dynamic we occasionally see in other controversies where parents contradict medical professionals in the appropriate health treatments for children).

Second, the law, like the others, only covers mental health professionals licensed by the state of Pennsylvania. They can't tell non-professionals that they can't talk with gay or transgender teens and tell them they can be "cured," because that would flat-out be censorship. As a result, this law can (and will) be ignored by church-based or religious-based conversion "therapy" treatment that is not provided by licensed professionals.

Thus, the extent that this law really stops any actual conversion therapy taking place in Pittsburgh is not clear. But what it does do is establish a precedent of the government deciding what sort of discussions are legally legitimate by classifying it as "fraud" rather than speech and therefore open to regulation. And so far, the Christian Science Monitor notes, federal judges have deferred to the argument that these laws are regulating professions, not censoring free speech. Their piece also quotes from my previous criticism of these laws as using government regulation to provide scientific certainty to a social science field that is ever-evolving.

Is there a reason to actually care if it stops kids from being abused by their parents? Yes, because why stop there? If a government agency can declare by its authority that a controversial matter is actually "settled" as a legal and regulatory issue, imagine what that could potentially mean.

You don't have to stretch too far. Heck, you don't even have to leave this site. A pack of attorneys general have colluded to target ExxonMobil, attempting to subpoena reams of correspondence between them and think tanks (among them, the Reason Foundation, which publishes this website). Their argument is that the debate and discussions about climate change was actual an organized attempt to defraud people and they're looking for evidence. Ron Bailey noted at the time:

"It's bad enough to politicize science, but to outlaw disagreements over how to interpret science heads down the perilous path toward Lysenkoism, in which only officially approved science is allowed to be practiced and to be discussed."

Is there a better way of handling the junk science of conversion therapy that doesn't violate free speech? Perhaps consider it an issue of informed consent instead when dealing with minors. Supporters of the ban (even some libertarian ones) have countered my concerns by suggesting this is akin to the government banning a cancer treatment that obviously doesn't work and is a scam. Response to fraud is a legitimate government concern, particularly when the result is a health hazard.

To which my response is: Okay, but what if a cancer patient is told that a particular cure doesn't work and wants to take it anyway? People should have the right to do so. The government can help protect against dangerous fraud but it still needs to acknowledge individual agency. A mechanism to inform teens that most mental health experts reject conversion therapy and requiring them to formally consent to treatment leads into the murky waters of compelled speech. But it's preferable to literally banning a professional from talking about a subject.