Monday, June 1, 2015

Supreme Court Dodges First Amendment Issue in Facebook Threats Case

In its highly-anticipated opinion in Elonis v. United States seemingly involving the First Amendment protections for threatening language posted on Facebook, the Court deflected the constitutional issue in favor of statutory interpretation. 

No-facebookRecall that while the question presented in the certiorari petition focused on the First Amendment and pointed to a split in the circuits regarding an application of Virginia v. Black, 538 U.S. 343 (2003) to a conviction of threatening another person: did it require proof of the defendant’s subjective intent to threaten or whether it is enough to show that a “reasonable person” would regard the statement as threatening.  However, the Court's Order granting certiorari instructed:

In addition to the question presented by the petition, the parties are directed to brief and argue the following question: "Whether, as a matter of statutory interpretation, conviction of threatening another person under 18 U. S. C. §875(c) requires proof of the defendant's subjective intent to threaten."

And at oral argument, much of the discussion delved into common law and Model Penal Code doctrine, even as these were intertwined with First Amendment considerations. 

Today's opinion, authored by Chief Justice Roberts, disentangles the First Amendment from the analysis.  It concludes that as a matter of statutory interpretation, the instructions to the jury that guilt could be predicated on a "reasonable person" standard merited reversal. 

Federal criminal liability generally does not turn solely on the results of an act without considering the defendant’s mental state. That understanding “took deep and early root in American soil” and Congress left it intact here: Under Section 875(c), “wrongdoing must be conscious to be criminal.”

However, whether or not that mental state could include "recklessness" was not decided by the Court.  Chief Justice Roberts's opinion for the seven Justice majority, specifically disagreed with Justices Alito and Thomas, who each wrote separately, regarding the suitability of reaching the "recklessness" issue.  Roberts wrote:

In response to a question at oral argument, Elonis stated that a finding of recklessness would not be sufficient. Neither Elonis nor the Government has briefed or argued that point, and we accordingly decline to address it.

Moreover, although the Court  may be “capable of deciding the recklessness issue,” (quoting the opinion of ALITO, J.), Roberts wrote that "following our usual practice of awaiting a decision below and hearing from the parties would help ensure that we decide it correctly."

Here is the Court's First Amendment "discussion":

Given our disposition, it is not necessary to consider any First Amendment issues.

Justice Alito would reach the First Amendment issue and hold that a recklessness standard would comport with the First Amendment.  Justice Thomas, dissenting, would affirm the Third Circuit's "general intent" standard and hold that Elonis' statements were "true threats" unprotected by the First Amendment.

Interestingly, Chief Justice Roberts's opinion does include extensive quotes from the postings, including Mr. Elonis's reference to "true threat jurisprudence."  It does not, however, include some of the more problematical sexual language.

June 1, 2015 in Courts and Judging, Criminal Procedure, First Amendment, Speech, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Second Circuit Upholds DMV Ban of "Choose Life" License Plate Against First Amendment Challenge

In its divided opinion in Children First Foundation v. Fiala, the Second Circuit held that the Commissioner of Motor Vehicle's rejection of "Choose Life" license plates for the state's specialty plate program is constitutional.  Judge Pooler, joined by Judge Hall, reversed the district judge's conclusion that the rejection violated the First Amendment. 

The Second Circuit's divided opinion enters the fray of what might be called the developing doctrine of license plates, be they state-mandated, vanity, or as here, "specialty" plates issued by the state as a means of raising revenue. As we've discussed, the Fourth Circuit recently held that North Carolina's provision of a "Choose Life" specialty license plate violated the First Amendment; the New Hampshire Supreme Court invalidated a vanity license plate regulation requiring "good taste"; a Michigan federal district judge similarly invalidated a refusal of specific letters on a vanity plate; and on remand from the Tenth Circuit, the design of the Oklahoma standard license plate was upheld.  

The progenitor of this doctrine is the classic First Amendment case of Wooley v. Maynard (1977) involving compelled speech.  This Term the Court heard oral arguments in Walker v. Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans; a divided Fifth Circuit had held that the rejection of the Sons of Confederate Veterans plate (featuring the Confederate flag) was a violation of the First Amendment as impermissible content and viewpoint discrimination.  The Second Circuit stayed the mandate of its decision pending the outcome of Walker. 

The specialty license plate litigation involves the intersection of a number of First Amendment doctrines.  As Judge Pooler's opinion in Children First Foundation expressed its holding:

We conclude that the content of New York’s custom license plates constitutes private speech [rather than government speech] and that the plates themselves are a nonpublic forum. CFF’s facial challenge fails because New York’s custom plate program did not impermissibly vest the DMV Commissioner with unbridled discretion in approving custom plate designs. Furthermore, that program, as applied in this case, was reasonable and viewpoint neutral, which is all that the First Amendment requires of restrictions on expression in a nonpublic forum.

Judge Pooler's well-structured opinion supports this conclusion.  First, the court considers whether the license plate is government speech or private speech.  If the speech is government speech, then the First Amendment has little application. (Recall that this was the position of the dissenting judge in the Fifth Circuit's decision in Sons of Confederate Veterans).  Agreeing with other circuits, the court reasons that an application of Pleasant Grove City, Utah v. Summum (2009) and Johanns v. Livestock Marketing Ass’n (2005) leads to " little difficulty concluding that such an observer would know that motorists affirmatively request specialty plates and choose to display those plates on their vehicles, which constitute private property."

Next, Judge Pooler's opinion considers the type of forum and concludes it is a "nonpublic forum," rejecting a comparison to a designated public forum formed when the government accepts advertising on buses.   Nevertheless, the opinion notes that the prohibition of "unbridled discretion" as a type of prior restraint is prohibited even in nonpublic forums. 
However, the court finds that the DMV does not exercise unbridled discretion that renders the DMV specialty license plate program facially unconstitutionally.  The court does note that the statute and regulation afford the DMV "broad discretion" and - - - standing alone - - - their ability "to provide an adequate safeguard against the Commissioner’s exercise of unbridled authority is dubious."  This argument is the centerpiece of Judge Livingston's extensive dissent.  For the majority, the agency policies and practices, written and unwritten, are highly pertinent.  The court specifically considers whether there was a uniform application.  It approvingly notes that the DMV denied a vanity plate for "RU486," with its reference to the so-called "morning-after pill."  And the court distinguishes specialty plates like "Cop Shot" and "Union Yes":

bringing to justice individuals who have attacked police officers cannot reasonably compare—either by its very nature or by the level of contentiousness that surrounds it—to the issue of abortion. With respect to the decision to issue a “Union Yes” plate, while the myriad issues pertaining to organized labor in the United States are social and political in nature, there is no basis to conclude that the Department failed to apply the policy against creating plates that touch upon contentious political issues as opposed to having applied the policy and merely reaching a different result than it did with the “Choose Life” plate.

Finally, regarding the as-applied challenge, which in some respects overlaps with the facial challenge, the court noted that while the distinction between viewpoint and content discrimination can be "hazy," a rejection of all abortion-related speech in a nonpublic forum is the type of content related policy that is subject only to a reasonableness requirement.  The court recognized the state's legitimate interests of avoiding road rage and avoiding the appearance of the government endorsing one side in a contentious political debate.  Interestingly, regarding "road rage," the court rejected CFF’s contention that because the “Choose Life” plates have been "available for purchase in other states for twelve years with no definitive proof of ill effects," this  and concluded that this did not render unreasonable New York’s decision, especially given the timing of the application and ejection when "the DMV was aware of violent protests and bombings at abortion clinics." 
Additionally, the court rejected CFF's due process and equal protection claims.
The Second Circuit's opinion is sure to be reevaluated when the United States Supreme Court renders its decision in Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans, as the court recognized when it stayed its mandate.  The court's delivery of its decision before Walker could be subjected to much speculation.


May 27, 2015 in Abortion, Courts and Judging, Current Affairs, Due Process (Substantive), Equal Protection, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Reproductive Rights, Speech, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Supreme Court to Review Batson Challenge in Georgia Death Penalty Case

The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari today in Foster v. Humphrey to the Georgia Supreme Court denying post-conviction relief. 

According to the petition, in 1987, an all-white jury convicted Timothy Tyrone Foster, a "poor, black, intellectually compromised eighteen year old" of the murder of an elderly white woman.  At trial, one black potential juror was removed for cause, and the prosecutors removed all four of the remaining black prospective jurors by peremptory strike, and proffered race-neutral reasons when defense counsel raised a challenge under the then-recent case of  Batson v. Kentucky (1986).  The judge rejected defense counsel's argument that the race-neutral reasons were pretexual and denied the Batson challenge.  The Georgia courts affirmed.

FosterImageAlmost twenty years later, pursuant to a request under the state open records act, Foster gained access to the prosecution team's jury selection notes, which included highlighting the black potential jurors (image at right), circling the word "black" as an answer to the race question on the juror questionnaire, identifying the black potential jurors as B#1, B#2, and B#3 in the notes, and a draft affidavit by the prosecution investigator stating "“if we had to pick a black juror then I recommend that [Marilyn] Garrett be one of the jurors; with a big doubt still remaining.”  (The affidavit was originally submitted to the court with all mentions of race excised). 

In the post-conviction proceeding, the court held that "[t]he notes and records submitted by Petitioner fail to demonstrate purposeful discrimination on the basis that the race of prospective jurors was either circled, highlighted or otherwise noted on various lists."  The Georgia Supreme Court declined review.

In granting certiorari, the United States Supreme Court could certainly agree with the Georgia courts and simply affirm.  Assuming the Court granted certiorari because of some disagreement with the conclusions, the Court might take a broader approach.  According to the petition in Foster, the prosecution "proffered a combined forty reasons for striking" the four black potential jurors.  Because there are almost always "neutral" reasons for exercising a peremptory challenge - - - given that it can be based on essentially a "hunch" - - - proving racial motivation and discrimination can be difficult.  The Court has the opportunity to revisit Batson and the problem of distinguishing between race-neutral and pretextual reasons, perhaps providing a more workable and fair rule.



May 26, 2015 in Courts and Judging, Criminal Procedure, Equal Protection, Federalism, First Amendment, Fundamental Rights, Habeas Corpus, Race, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, May 18, 2015

DC Circuit Holds No Clearly Established Right Not To Be Tasered

In its opinion in Lash v. Lemke, the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed the grant of a summary judgment in favor of law enforcement officers in a suit filed by an Occupy D.C. protestor for a violation of Fourth and First Amendment rights.

Judge Griffith, writing for the court, and joined by Chief Judge Garland and Judge Kavanaugh, described the arrest of Ryan Lash at the Occupy DC encampment in January 2012 by United States Park Police Officers Tiffany Reed, Frank Hilscher, and Jennifer Lemke:

Officer Tiffany Reed, who had been following Lash as he hurried through the tents, stepped up behind Lash and seized his arms from the rear. Lash pulled his arms away and held them in front of his body, continuing to walk away as he insisted that he was innocent. Reed again sought to restrain Lash from behind and Lash again pulled his arms away from her. Reed then took hold of Lash’s left arm while Hilsher approached and seized his right arm. Lemke approached at the same time and drew her Taser from its holster, holding it ready.

Though Lash’s arms were now held by two different officers, he continued to struggle to keep his feet while Reed and Hilsher worked for several moments to gain control of him. Lemke, standing nearby and behind the trio, fired her Taser into Lash’s lower back. He fell to the ground, and the officers handcuffed him.

Lash argued that Lemke’s use of the Taser constituted excessive force in violation of Lash’s Fourth Amendment rights and was motivated by retaliatory animus against his protected expression in violation of his First Amendment rights.  The defendant officers raised qualified immunity and the district judge granted summary judgment in their favor.

Relying on Ashcroft v. al- Kidd (2011), the DC Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that the "claimed right, whether it exists or not, is by no means 'clearly established.'"  In so doing, however, the court acknowledged that this inquiry cannot be abstract, but must occur "in the specific context of the case."  This "context," the court further acknowledged, depended on whether Lash was "resisting arrest." 

This would seemingly make summary judgment - - - requiring no genuine disputes of material fact - - - difficult, but the court interestingly relied on multiple video-recordings of the "episode" which rendered Lash's description a "visible fiction."   

Here is one of the videos of the incident:


The court further rejected Lash's arguments regarding the video as conclusive:

Lash argues that we may not rely on the videorecordings in this way because they “cannot fully convey everything that people at the scene felt” such as “how much force one person is exerting” or “the level of detail a person will experience in the moment.” This is no argument at all. The Supreme Court has explained that we determine whether a right is clearly established based on the “objective legal reasonableness of an official’s acts,”  protecting officers from liability unless “it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted.”  Subjective factors like those Lash identifies here cannot shed any light on whether a reasonable officer in these circumstances would have believed her actions violated Lash’s clearly established rights. It is that objective test, not Lash’s knowledge or Lemke’s thoughts, that determines the scope of qualified immunity. The videorecordings in the record provide us all we need to determine what a reasonable officer would have known at the scene. And we do not hesitate to conclude from the videorecording that there is “no genuine issue of material fact” regarding Lash’s active resistance.

[citations omitted]

Given the increased use of videorecordings in cases against police officers, the court's discussion of 'what the video shows' might be expected to be used in other cases.

Here, however, the court concludes that Lash was "actively resisting arrest," and thus there was no clearly established right not be subject to a Taser. 

 As to the First Amendment claim, the court quickly found that Lash did not show the officer had "retaliatory animus."


May 18, 2015 in Courts and Judging, Criminal Procedure, Film, First Amendment, Fourth Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, May 11, 2015

Second Circuit Upholds Admissibility of Rap Video and Tattoos Against First Amendment Challenge

In its opinion in United States v. Pierce,  the Second Circuit considered the arguments of co-defendant/appellant Melvin Colon regarding the admissibility of a rap video and images of tattoos in the criminal trial. The unanimous opinion, authored by Judge Denny Chin, affirmed the convictions of Colon and his co-defendants for conspiracy, racketeering, murder, narcotics trafficking, and firearms offenses largely related to their activities as members of a "violent street gang, dubbed the Courtlandt Avenue Crew (ʺCACʺ) by the government,"  as well as a gang known as Godʹs Favorite Children, or ʺGFC.ʺ

Mozart Graffiti via

Colon contended that his First Amendment rights were violated when the district court permitted the government to present as evidence a rap video and images of his tattoos, some of which he had posted to his Facebook page.  The "rap video" portrayed Colon as rapping: ʺYG to OG / Somebody make somebody nose bleed/ Iʹm OG shoot the Ruger / Iʹm a shooter.ʺ A witness, also seen in the video, testified for the prosecution that the Young Gunnaz crew, or YG, was feuding with the OG (formerly the GFC). The images of the tattoos introduced at trial were explained by the Second Circuit as including:

a close‐up of Colonʹs hand, showing his ʺY.G.K.ʺ tattoo, which stands for ʺYoung Gunnaz Killer.ʺ In some of the photographs Colon is pointing a gun at his Y.G.K. tattoo, indicating, according to the government, his desire to harm members of the Young Gunnaz. Other tattoos depicted in the photographs introduced at trial included one on his right arm that read ʺCourtlandtʺ; tattoos on his left arm that referenced [co-defendant] Meregildoʹs nicknames (ʺYoungʺ and ʺKillaʺ); and one stating ʺM.I.P. [Mac In Peace] T‐Money,ʺ referring to Harrison, the former leader of CAC.

The Second Circuit panel rejected the First Amendment challenges to the introduction of the evidence. First, the court noted that the conviction did not rest on the expression: "here, the speech is not 'itself the proscribed conduct,'" interestingly citing United States v. Caronia, the 2012 Second Circuit case reversing a conviction for promoting the off-label use of prescription drugs. Additionally, the Second Circuit considered Colon's argument that the rap lyrics were merely "fictional artistic expressions," and discussed the New Jersey Supreme Court decision last year in State v. Skinner, noting that the court there observed that ʺ[o]ne would not presume that Bob Marley, who wrote the well‐known song ʹI Shot the Sheriff,ʹ actually shot a sheriff.ʺ  However, the Second Circuit distinguished Skinner in which the court reversed the conviction (although not explicitly on the basis of the First Amendment), by concluding that here the rap lyrics and tattoos were properly admitted, because they were relevant and their probative value was not substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.  Specifically - - - if cursorily - - - the Second Circuit reasoned:

The government proffered the rap video to show Colonʹs animosity toward the Young Gunnaz, as well as his association with CAC. The government similarly offered the tattoo evidence to help establish his motive for violence against the Young Gunnaz, and to show his loyalty to Harrison and Meregildo ‐‐ indeed other members of CAC had similar tattoos. Hence, the rap video and tattoos were relevant, their probative value was not outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, and Colonʹs First Amendment rights were not implicated when the district court admitted the evidence from his social media account.

As in other cases raising First Amendment challenges to the introduction of expressive evidence, the First Amendment issues are subsumed into the evidentiary one.

Colon also challenged a portion of the Stored Communications Act (SCA), 18 U.S.C. § 2703(c)(1), regarding the subpoenaing of Facebook for page content.  Appellant Colon, however, is not challenging the Government's acquisition of his own Facebook content, however, but argued that SCA's prohibition of his subpoena of Facebook content from a witness, denied him his Fifth Amendment due process right to present evidence and his Sixth Amendment right to confront adverse witnesses.  Colon managed to obtain some of the Facebook postings through the work of a private investigator and his attorney used it in cross-examination and introduced portions of it.  The Second Circuit declined to reach the constitutional question, given that "Colon possessed the very contents he claims the SCA prevented him from obtaining, and his suggestion that there could have been additional relevant exculpatory material in the Parsons Account is purely speculative."

The court's opinion resolves the issues before it (including a sentencing issue which earned a remand), but does little to elucidate the important First Amendment concerns that remain regarding the admissibility of rap lyrics and tattoos in criminal trials.

May 11, 2015 in Criminal Procedure, Due Process (Substantive), First Amendment, Music, Opinion Analysis, Race, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, May 7, 2015

District Judge Rejects Challenges to Requirement that Government Contractors Post Employee Rights Notice

In an opinion today in National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) v. Perez, Judge Amit Mehta of the District of Columbia District Court rejected various challenges to the Department of Labor's so-called "Posting Rule," a regulation requiring, as a condition of nearly all federal contracts, that contractors post workplace notices informing their employees of their rights under the National Labor Relations Act.  The "Posting Rule" is derived from President Obama's Executive Order 13496, promulgated in January 2009 pursuant to the Procurement Act.

140px-DOL_Seal_with_HammerThe central constitutional challenge is that the "Posting Rule" is compelled speech and violates the First Amendment as an unconstitutional condition.  The court's first task was to determine the relevance of a NAM v. NLRB, 717 F.3d 947 (D.C. Cir. 2013), overruled in part by Am. Meat Inst. v. U.S. Dep’t of Agric., 760 F.3d 18 (D.C. Cir. 2014).  The judge concluded that while the posting at issue in NAM was "nearly identical," that case was not a First Amendment one - - - although it drew on some First Amendment principles - - - but an interpretation of §8(c) of the NLRA which prohibits the expression of views, argument, or opinions as constituting an unfair labor practice. 

Instead, the challenge here was analogous to the Supreme Court's decision in Rumsfeld v. FAIR involving the Solomon Amendment directed at law schools. 

There is little material distinction between FAIR and this case. The facts differ, but the First Amendment analysis and outcome are the same. Like the Solomon Amendment, the Posting Rule is a “far cry” from the government-mandated speech deemed unconstitutional in Barnette and Wooley.  Requiring an employer to post government speech about labor rights is “simply not the same as forcing a student to pledge allegiance, or forcing a Jehovah’s Witness to display the motto ‘Live Free or Die,’ and it trivializes the freedom protected in Barnette and Wooley to suggest that it is.”

Moreover, the Posting Rule does not require a contractor to speak at all. Rather, the contractor is required to host government speech as a condition of receipt of a federal contract. That, of course, presents a contractor with a choice—agree to post the Notice or forgo federal contracting. But that choice is no different than the one presented by the Solomon Amendment— either accommodate a military recruiter or forgo federal funds.

Additionally, the Posting Rule does not interfere with the contractor’s ability to convey a different message. A contractor can still express its own views or engage in lawful activities to discourage unionization. Indeed, nothing in the rule prevents a contractor from creating its own posting and placing it next to the Department of Labor-drafted Notice, so as to make clear that the Notice does not reflect the contractor’s own views and its display is government mandated. *** A contractor’s speech is thus not “affected by the speech it [is] forced to accommodate.” 

Nor are employees likely to believe that the Notice is their employer’s speech.

[citations omitted].  The court rejected NAM's attempt to distinguish FAIR because the speech here is a “slanted list of rights that unfairly promotes unionization while pointedly omitting a host of other critical employee rights,” noting even if the court could determine the meaning of "slanted," it is well settled that the government may make content-based choices about its own speech.

The court rejected NAM's arguments regarding preemption, as well as its statutory and administrative law arguments.  It therefore entered summary judgment in favor of the government.

Given the vigor with which NAM has litigated similar issues, it will most likely appeal.  However, recently appointed Judge Mehta has authored a closely reasoned opinion that should withstand review.
NOTICE[image via]

May 7, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Executive Authority, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Second Circuit Finds NSA's Bulk Telephony Metadata Collection Not Authorized by Congress

In its lengthy, well-reasoned, and unanimous opinion in American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) v. Clapper, the Second Circuit today concluded that NSA's bulk telephony metadata collection is not authorized by §215 of the PATRIOT Act, 50 USC §1861(b)(2)(A).   After hearing oral arguments last September, the panel reversed the district court's opinion that had rejected both the statutory and constitutional challenges to the scheme.  Recall that this widespread collection has been controversial since the program was first revealed through information obtained by Edward Snowden; we've additionally discussed the issues here, here, and here.

CallwaitingThe Second Circuit, in the opinion authored by Gerard Lynch, did agree with the district judge that the ACLU plaintiffs had standing to challenge the collection of call records.  The court stated that "the government’s own orders demonstrate that appellants’ call records are indeed among those collected as part of the telephone metadata program."  The court rejected the government's contention that any alleged injuries depend on the government's reviewing the information collected rather than simply collecting it: the collection is [challenged as] a seizure and the Fourth Amendment prohibits both searches and seizures.  The court distinguished Amnesty International v. Clapper in which the United States Supreme Court's closely divided opinion concluded that the alleged standing was based on a "speculative chain of possibilities."  Instead:

appellants’ alleged injury requires no speculation whatsoever as to how events will unfold under § 215 – appellants’ records (among those of numerous others) have been targeted for seizure by the government; the government has used the challenged statute to effect that seizure; the orders have been approved by the FISC; and the records have been collected.

The panel likewise held that the ACLU organizations have standing to assert a First Amendment violation regarding its own and its members' rights of association.

However, the court did not rule on the Fourth and First Amendment claims explicitly, although its conclusion regarding §215 occurs in the shadow of the constitutional issues, or as the court phrases it: "The seriousness of the constitutional concerns" has "some bearing on what we hold today, and on the consequences of that holding." 

What the court does hold is that "the telephone metadata program exceeds the scope of what Congress has authorized and there violates §215."  After a discussion of the program and §215, it first considers the government's arguments that the judiciary is precluded from considering the issue.  The court interestingly observes that judicial preclusion here would "fly in the face of the doctrine of constitutional avoidance."

[I]t would seem odd that Congress would preclude challenges to executive actions that allegedly violate Congress’s own commands, and thereby channel the complaints of those aggrieved by such actions into constitutional challenges that threaten Congress’s own authority. There may be arguments in favor of such an unlikely scheme, but it cannot be said that any such reasons are so patent and indisputable that Congress can be assumed, in the face of the strong presumption in favor of APA review, to have adopted them without having said a word about them.

The court likewise held that there was no implicit preclusion.  

On the merits of the §215 challenge, the court essentially found that the government's interpretation of "relevant" was too broad.  The court noted that both parties relied on the grand jury analogy, supported by the statute's language and legislative history.  Yet for the court, the government's argument faltered on this very ground:

Search warrants and document subpoenas typically seek the records of a particular individual or corporation under investigation, and cover particular time periods when the events under investigation occurred. The orders at issue here contain no such limits. The metadata concerning every telephone call made or received in the United States using the services of the recipient service provider are demanded, for an indefinite period extending into the future. The records demanded are not those of suspects under investigation, or of people or businesses that have contact with such subjects, or of people or businesses that have contact with others who are in contact with the subjects – they extend to every record that exists, and indeed to records that do not yet exist, as they impose a continuing obligation on the recipient of the subpoena to provide such records on an ongoing basis as they are created. The government can point to no grand jury subpoena that is remotely comparable to the real‐time data collection undertaken under this program.

Moreover, the court relies on the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PLCOB) Report regarding the overbreadth, noting that "counterterrorism in general" is not sufficiently narrow.  Further, the court states that the government's interpretation reads the "investigation" language of §215 out of the statute, and even more specifically, §215's language "relevant to an authorized investigation (other than a threat assessment)."
Again, the court squarely rests its conclusion on §215 and avoids the constitutional issues.  Nevertheless, it does discuss them.  It largely relegates the First Amendment issue to a footnote (footnote 12).  Its discussion of the Fourth Amendment issue is more robust, including a discussion of  Smith v. Maryland, the 1979 pen register case, and United States v. Jones, the 2012 GPS case.
These constitutional issues would - - - should? - - - shape any understanding by Congress according to the court.
Concurring, Judge Robert Sack, emphasizes that the role of the courts should not be minimized.  Judge Sack's concurrence is also worth reading its more robust discussion of the First Amendment issues.
Perhaps unexpectedly, the court does not enjoin the metadata collection program.  The court notes that §215 is set to expire and that it is "prudent to pause to allow an opportunity for debate in Congress that may (or may not) profoundly alter the legal landscape."   Yet, it strongly implies, it remains ready and able to reach the constitutional issues if necessary.
[image "Call Waiting" via]

May 7, 2015 in Courts and Judging, Criminal Procedure, Current Affairs, First Amendment, Foreign Affairs, Fourth Amendment, Interpretation, Opinion Analysis, Speech, Standing, State Secrets | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, May 1, 2015

Ninth Circuit Rejects First Amendment Challenge to Disclosure of Significant Donors to NonProfit

The Ninth Circuit's opinion in Center for Competitive Politics v. Harris rejected a First Amendment challenge to a disclosure of major donors requirement.

Form-990The nonprofit Center for Competitive Politics  (CCP)- - - an organization to promote the First Amendment and "campaign freedom"- - - sought to enjoin the California Attorney General from requiring it to disclose the names and contributions of the Center’s “significant donors” on Internal Revenue Form 990 Schedule B, which the Center must file with the state in order to maintain its registered status with the state’s Registry of Charitable Trusts.  The unanimous panel affirmed the district judge's denial of a preliminary injunction.

The court rejected as a "novel theory" CCP's argument that the disclosure requirement alone is so injurious that it must meet strict scrutiny. 

CCP is correct that the chilling risk inherent in compelled disclosure triggers exacting scrutiny—“the strict test established by NAACP v. Alabama,” —and that, presented with a challenge to a disclosure requirement, we must examine and balance the plaintiff’s First Amendment injury against the government’s interest. However, CCP is incorrect when it argues that the compelled disclosure itself constitutes such an injury, and when it suggests that we must weigh that injury when applying exacting scrutiny. Instead, the Supreme Court has made it clear that we must balance the “seriousness of the actual burden” on a plaintiff’s First Amendment rights. Here, CCP has not shown any “actual burden” on its freedom of association.

[citations omitted].  The court largely relies on  the Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Doe v. Reed, (John Doe I) in which the Court upheld the constitutional of Washington's disclosure of petition signatures.  Indeed, the Ninth Circuit panel noted that

unlike in John Doe No. 1 or in other cases requiring the disclosure of the names of petition signatories, in this case, the disclosure would not be public. The Attorney General keeps Form 990 Schedule B confidential. Although it is certainly true that non-public disclosures can still chill protected activity where a plaintiff fears the reprisals of a government entity, CCP has not alleged any such fear here. CCP instead argues that the Attorney General’s systems for preserving confidentiality are not secure, and that its significant donors’ names might be inadvertently accessed or released. Such arguments are speculative, and do not constitute evidence that would support CCP’s claim that disclosing its donors to the Attorney General for her confidential use would chill its donors’ participation.

However, the Ninth Circuit left open the possibility that CCP could show "a reasonable probability that the compelled disclosure of [its] contributors’ names will subject them to threats, harassment, or reprisals from either Government officials or private parties" that would warrant relief on an as-applied challenge, just as the Court did in Doe v. Reed.  Recall that on remand in Doe v. Reed the Ninth Circuit found no such probability.  Given the confidential nature of the 990 Form here, CCP would most likely have an even more difficult time showing such a probability.

The Ninth Circuit also rejected the preemption claim.  Essentially although the Form is required by the federal IRS, federal law does not bar state attorneys from requesting the information in the form.


UPDATE: On May 15, 2015, the Center for Competitive Politics filed an Emergency Application for Injunction Pending Certiorari in the United States Supreme Court; more here.

May 1, 2015 in Campaign Finance, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Recent Cases, Speech | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

NYC MTA Amends Advertising Policy to Exclude Political Adverts

In a likely response to last week's decision by a federal district judge that the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) must accept an anti-Muslim advert (representing that Jihad means "Kill Jews"), the MTA today amended its advertising policy to exclude all political advertisements. 

Mta-logo_1The new policy's purpose is to"convert the MTA’s Property from a designated public forum into a limited public forum by excluding advertising of a political nature."  The new policy prohibits advertising that:

  1. Is political in nature, including but not limited to advertisements that either:

    1. Are directed or addressed to the action, inaction, prospective action or policies of a governmental entity, except as permitted in Sections IV.A.2–IV.A.3 of this Policy [governing advertising by the MTA itself or government agencies]; or

    2. Prominently or predominately advocate or express a political message, including but not limited to an opinion, position, or viewpoint regarding disputed economic, political, moral, religious or social issues or related matters, or support for or opposition to disputed issues or causes.

The issue of anti-Muslim adverts on public transportation has caused much activity in the courts.  The new MTA policy is similar to one considered by the Sixth Circuit which found a rejection of an anti-Muslim advertisement in southern Michigan buses by the governmental authority SMART to be constitutional under SMART's  policy prohibiting several categories of advertising including "political or political campaign advertising."

[UPDATE: Here's some reporting on the issue by NPR's NYC station.]

April 29, 2015 in Current Affairs, First Amendment, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Federal Judge Finds Pennsylvania's "Revictimization Act" Unconstitutional

In a well-crafted but hardly surprising opinion in Abu-Jamal v. Kane, Chief Judge Christopher Conner of the Middle District of Pennsylvania concluded that Pennsylvania's "Revictimization Relief Act" is unconstitutional.

Recall that Act provided:

In addition to any other right of action and any other remedy provided by law, a victim of a personal injury crime may bring a civil action against an offender in any court of competent jurisdiction to obtain injunctive and other appropriate relief, including reasonable attorney fees and other costs associated with the litigation, for conduct which perpetuates the continuing effect of the crime on the victim.

At the time of signing, it was clear that the Act was primarily directed at Mumia Abu-Jamal; Abu-Jamal brought suit soon after the Act was passed; another challenge was brought by Prison Legal News and consolidated.

Judge Conner began his opinion by noting that the First Amendment does not "evanesce" at the prison gate, and ended it by stating that the First Amendment does not "evanesce at any gate." (emphasis in original).   In applying well-settled First Amendment doctrine, Judge Conner focused on both  Simon & Schuster v. Crime Victims Board (1991) (holding unconstitutional the so-called "Son of Sam" law) and Snyder v. Phelps (2011) (essentially holding that free speech trumped the tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress).  Judge Conner easily rejected the State's argument that the statute regulated "conduct" - - - which is, after all, the word in the statute and which would merit lower scrutiny - - - noting that:

throughout its brief legislative gestation, the law was championed primarily as a device for suppressing offender speech.  The Act's sponsor extolled its capacity to silence Abu-Jamal in particular.  The chairman of the house judiciary committee opined that the Act would end the "extreme distress" suffered by victims when offenders achieve celebrity, admonishing Goddard College for providing a "cold blooded murderer" [Abu-Jamal] with a speaking forum.

 (emphasis in original; citations to Stipulation omitted).  As a content-regulation, the Act "instantly fails" the exacting scrutiny standard according to Judge Conner.

In addition to the content-restriction fatality, Judge Conner found that the Act was impermissibly vague and substantially overbroad as those doctrines are derived from due process.  The Act's "central limitation" turns on the unknowable emotive response of victims, which a person cannot determine "short of clairvoyance."   Moreover, the Act applies to "offenders," a term the statute does not define, and which could presumably apply to a wide swath of persons, including non-offender third parties who publish statements by offenders.  Relatedly, the overbreadth defect of the Act concerned the judge:

[T]he Act ostensibly affects protected - - - and critically important - - - speech, including: pardon applications, clemency petitions, and any testimony given in connections with those filings; public expressions of innocence, confessions, or apologies; legislative testimony in support of improved prison conditions and reformed juvenile justice systems; programs encouraging at-risk youth to avoid lives of crime; or any public speech or written work whatsoever, regardless of the speaker's intention or the work's relation to the offense.

In other words, if the victim can demonstrate "mental anguish," the statute would be satisfied.  And, combined with the broad notion of "offender," taken to its "logical conclusion," the Act would "limit an accused person's right to profess his innocence before proven guilty."

Pennsylvania would be wise not to appeal this judgment.  It would have even been more wise if the legislature had not passed - - - and the Governor had not signed - - - such a patently unconstitutional statute last year.

Would the PA Act have covered MLK's famous publication?


April 29, 2015 in Books, Criminal Procedure, Current Affairs, Due Process (Substantive), First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Supreme Court Upholds Florida's Judicial Campaign Solicitation Ban in Williams-Yulee

In its 5-4 opinion in Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar, the Court concluded that Florida's Code of Judicial Conduct 7C(1) prohibiting the personal solicitation of campaign funds by judicial candidates does not violate the First Amendment. 

From the oral arguments, it did seem as if the opinion would be closely divided, but it was less predictable that Chief Justice Roberts would be writing for the majority upholding Florida's Canon7C(1).  In the majority opinion, joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan in full, and by Ginsburg except as to part II, Roberts began:

Our Founders vested authority to appoint federal judges in the President, with the advice and consent of the Sen- ate, and entrusted those judges to hold their offices during good behavior. The Constitution permits States to make a different choice, and most of them have done so. In 39 States, voters elect trial or appellate judges at the polls. In an effort to preserve public confidence in the integrity of their judiciaries, many of those States prohibit judges and judicial candidates from personally soliciting funds for their campaigns. We must decide whether the First Amendment permits such restrictions on speech.

We hold that it does. Judges are not politicians, even when they come to the bench by way of the ballot. And a State’s decision to elect its judiciary does not compel it to treat judicial candidates like campaigners for political office. A State may assure its people that judges will apply the law without fear or favor—and without having personally asked anyone for money. We affirm the judgment of the Florida Supreme Court.

image via

However, writing only for a plurality, Chief Justice Roberts, relying on Republican Party of Minnesota v. White (2002), held that a "State may restrict the speech of a judicial candidate only if the restriction is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling interest."  The plurality rejected the Florida Bar's argument, supported by several amici, that the Canon should be subject to the more permissive standard of Buckley v. Valeo (1976) requiring that the law be  “closely drawn” to match a “sufficiently important interest.” It concluded that the  “closely drawn” standard is a "poor fit" for this case which is a claimed violation of a right to free speech rather than a claimed violation of “freedom of political association.”

Justice Ginsburg, concurring, reiterated her dissent in Republican Party of Minnesota v. White regarding the standard of review, and emphasized that the Court's "recent campaign-finance decisions, trained on political actors, should not hold sway for judicial elections," specifically discussing Citizens United (2010) and McCutcheon (2014).  Justice Breyer, who joined the Chief Justice's opinion in full, nevertheless wrote briefly regarding the standard of review, reiterating his previous statements that  he views "this Court’s doctrine referring to tiers of scrutiny as guidelines informing our approach to the case at hand, not tests to be mechanically applied."

Despite the highest scrutiny, however, Chief Justice Roberts's opinion for the Court declared that

Canon 7C(1) advances the State’s compelling interest in preserving public confidence in the integrity of the judiciary, and it does so through means narrowly tailored to avoid unnecessarily abridging speech. This is therefore one of the rare cases in which a speech restriction withstands strict scrutiny.

The Court found that “protecting the integrity of the judiciary” and “maintaining the public’s confidence in an impartial judiciary” were both compelling governmental interests.  (The Court did not discuss a specific interest of lawyers or their clients in judicial integrity).  As to the narrow tailoring, the Court rejected the "underinclusive" argument - - - essentially that judicial candidates could indirectly solicit campaign funds - - - by noting that while underinclusivity may raise a "red flag," there is no "freestanding 'underinclusiveness limitation.'”  Here, the Court concluded that

personal solicitation by judicial candidates implicates a different problem than solicitation by campaign committees. However similar the two solicitations may be in substance, a State may conclude that they present markedly different appearances to the public. Florida’s choice to allow solicitation by campaign committees does not undermine its decision to ban solicitation by judges.

There are three dissenting opinions by the Justices: Scalia, joined by Thomas; Kennedy, and Alito.  As the author of Caperton v. Massey, on which the Court partially relies for its compelling governmental interest in judicial integrity, Kennedy's opinion is perhaps most noteworthy.  (And recall that Chief Justice Roberts dissented in Caperton).  Caperton, based in due process rather than free speech, is uncited in Kennedy's concurring opinion, which focuses on the First Amendment:

This separate dissent is written to underscore the irony in the Court’s having concluded that the very First Amendment protections judges must enforce should be lessened when a judicial candidate’s own speech is at issue. It is written to underscore, too, the irony in the Court’s having weakened the rigors of the First Amendment in a case concerning elections, a paradigmatic forum for speech and a process intended to protect freedom in so many other manifestations.

At the crux of Kennedy's dissent, as the other dissents, is the similarity of judicial elections to political elections.  The distinction - - - or lack thereof - - - between judicial and other elections is the linchpin on which the differing views of the case pivot.  Chief Justice Roberts ends the Court's opinion with an originalist reflection on that distinction:

The desirability of judicial elections is a question that has sparked disagreement for more than 200 years. Hamilton believed that appointing judges to positions with life tenure constituted “the best expedient which can be devised in any government to secure a steady, upright, and impartial administration of the laws.” The Federalist No. 78, at 465. Jefferson thought that making judges “dependent on none but themselves” ran counter to the principle of “a government founded on the public will.” 12 The Works of Thomas Jefferson 5 (P. Ford ed. 1905). The federal courts reflect the view of Hamilton; most States have sided with Jefferson. Both methods have given our Nation jurists of wisdom and rectitude who have devoted themselves to maintaining “the public’s respect . . . and a reserve of public goodwill, without becoming subservient to public opinion.” Rehnquist, Judicial Independence, 38 U. Rich. L. Rev. 579, 596 (2004).

It is not our place to resolve this enduring debate. Our limited task is to apply the Constitution to the question presented in this case. Judicial candidates have a First Amendment right to speak in support of their campaigns. States have a compelling interest in preserving public confidence in their judiciaries. When the State adopts a narrowly tailored restriction like the one at issue here, those principles do not conflict. A State’s decision to elect judges does not compel it to compromise public confidence in their integrity.


April 29, 2015 in Campaign Finance, Courts and Judging, Due Process (Substantive), Federalism, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Supreme Court Hears Same-Sex Marriage Arguments in Obergefell v. Hodges

The Court today heard oral arguments in two parts in the consolidated cases of Obergefell v. Hodges on certiorari from the Sixth Circuit opinion which had created a split in the circuits on the issue of the constitutionality of same-sex marriage bans.   There have been a record number of amicus briefs filed in the cases highlighting the interest in the case.

For oral argument on the first certified question - - -does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex? - - - Mary Bonauto argued for the Petitioners; Solicitor Donald Verrilli argued for the United States as amicus curiae supporting Petitioners; and John Bursh, as Special Assistant Attorney for Michigan argued for Respondents. 

For oral argument on the second certified question - - - does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-state? - - -Douglas Hallward-Driemeier argued for Petitioners and Joseph Whalen, Associate Solicitor General of Tennessee, argued for Respondents.

The Court and the advocates acknowledged that the second question is only reached if the first question is answered in the negative: Justice Ginsburg and Justice Kagan both posited this principle with Hallward-Driemeier and Whalen, respectively, agreeing. Chief Justice Roberts noted that" we only get to the second question if you've lost on that point already, if we've said States do not have to recognize same-­sex marriage as a marriage," and later raised the issue of whether the second question made practical sense:

It certainly undermines the State interest that we would, assuming arguendo, have recognized in the first case, to say that they must welcome in their borders people who have been married elsewhere. It'd simply be a matter of time  until they would, in effect, be recognizing that within the State.


Donkey Hotey via

 The themes of the oral arguments held no surprising issues:

Is a same-sex marriage decision by the Court premature?  Interestingly, Justice Kennedy pointed out that it is "about the same time between Brown and Loving as between Lawrence and this case. It's about 10 years." 

Should it be the Court or the states that should decide?  The question of the proper role of judicial review has long preoccupied the courts in the context of same-sex marriage. Justice Scalia raised this issue several times, but when John Bursh raised it on behalf of Michigan, Justice Kagan responded that "we don't live in a pure democracy; we live in a constitutional democracy."

Is the race analogy apt?  Bursch distinguished Loving (as well as Turner v. Safley and Zablocki v. Redhail) because previous cases involved man-woman marriage and  "States' interest in linking children to their biological" parents.

Is there a slippery slope?  What about polygamous and incestuous marriages?  What about age of consent laws?

What about religious freedom?  How do we know that ministers won't be forced to perform "gay marriages"?

Should the case be resolved on Equal Protection or Due Process?  Justice Kennedy asked General Verrilli about Glucksberg,   Verrilli replied:

  1. GENERAL VERRILLI: Justice Kennedy, forgive me for answering the question this way. We do recognize that there's a profound connection between liberty and equality, but the United States has advanced only an equal protection argument. We haven't made the fundamental rights argument under Glucksberg. And therefore, I'm not sure it would be appropriate for me not having briefed it to comment on that.

  2. JUSTICE KENNEDY: Well, can you tell me why you didn't make the fundamental argument?

  3. GENERAL VERRILLI: Well, because we think ­­well, because we think while we do see that there is, of course, this profound connection, we do think that for reasons like the ones implicit in the Chief Justice's question, that this issue really sounds in equal protection, as we understand it, because the question is equal participation in a State conferred status and institution. And that's why we think of it in equalprotection terms

As an equal protection case, it is one about sexual orientation or sex discrimination?  One of the more interesting questions was posed by Chief Justice Roberts to Bursch:

Counsel, I'm ­­ I'm not sure it's necessary to get into sexual orientation to resolve the case. I mean, if Sue loves Joe and Tom loves Joe, Sue can marry him and Tom can't. And the difference is based upon their different sex. Why isn't that a straightforward question of sexual discrimination?

How is the state's interest in procreation related to the ban on same-sex marriage?  Justice Ginsburg, as well as others, posed questions about the elderly not being barred from marriage.
Is marriage a changing institution or is a constant for millennia?  Justice Ginsburg predictably noted that marriage was once "a dominant and a subordinate relationship," with women being subordinate, while Chief Justice Roberts disputed the fact that women's subordination (or coverture) was a universal aspect of marriage.
Does the Full Faith and Credit Clause, Article IV, guarantee a state will recognize another state's marriage?  Justice Scalia noted he was "glad" to be able to quote Article IV, "a portion of the Constitution that actually seems to be relevant," although there remained a lack of clarity in its applications.  Is a marriage a public act?  record?  judgment? 

The open question is whether the Court's opinion will be as predictable as the questions.

April 28, 2015 in Courts and Judging, Due Process (Substantive), Equal Protection, Federalism, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Full Faith and Credit Clause, Fundamental Rights, Oral Argument Analysis, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, April 24, 2015

Ninth Circuit Upholds Arizona's Voter Registration Form for Party Preference

Before 2011, Arizona law required that voter registration forms include a blank space for the registrant’s party preference.  But a 2011 law required the voter registration form distributed by the Arizona Secretary of State to list the two largest parties (as measured by number of registered voters) on the form, as well as provide a blank line for “other party preferences.” Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 16-152(A)(5).

In response to the amendment, the Arizona Secretary of State revised box 14 on the Registration Form, and the opinion includes this illustration:


Arizona_registrationMinority parties Arizona Green Party and the Arizona Libertarian Party challenged the new law as violative of their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.  In its opinion in Arizona Libertarian Party v. Bennett, the Ninth Circuit upheld the statute as constitutional.

The panel majority opinion by Judge Tashima noted the intertwining of the equality and First Amendment claims:

“Restrictions on voting can burden equal protection rights as well as ‘interwoven strands of liberty’ protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments—namely, the ‘right of individuals to associate for the advancement of political beliefs, and the right of qualified voters, regardless of their political persuasion, to cast their votes effectively.’”

It stated that the party challenging the law bears “the initial burden of showing that [the state’s] ballot access requirements seriously restrict the availability of political opportunity" and that here any burden was de minimis.  The panel thus applied rational basis scrutiny which the new form easily passed.

Concurring, Judge McKeown argued that the rational basis review burden-shifting standards derived from Ninth Circuit precedent and which the majority applied were "inconsistent with the Supreme Court’s approach to analyzing voting rights challenges." Instead, the court should apply the balancing tests articulated in Burdick v. Takushi (1992) and reiterated in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board (2008), although Judge McKeown acknowledged that the "semantic distinction between the balancing test and the rational basis standard" may make little difference in most cases.  Indeed, here Judge McKeown recognized that Arizona's asserted interests in reducing printing costs and easing administrative efficiency are “sufficiently weighty to justify” the speculative burden on the plaintiff minority parties' rights.


April 24, 2015 in Association, Elections and Voting, Equal Protection, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Federal District Judge Finds First Amendment Requires Anti-Muslim Adverts

In a 28 page opinion district judge John Koeltl has granted a preliminary injunction - - - stayed for 30 days - - - requiring New York's transit authority to accept anti-Muslim advertisements on its buses. 

BUSB62The case, American Freedom Defense Initiative v. Metropolitan Transportation Authority (AFDI v. MTA) should be read as part of a series of cases involving often but not always successful attempts to place anti-Muslim adverts in public places.  Previously in NYC, a federal judge found the Metropolitan Transit Authority's initial rejection of the advertisements under its (since amended) "civilty standard" to be unconstitutional and the advertisements appeared, causing some NYC residents to engage in "more speech" in reaction to the advertisements.  On the contrary, the Sixth Circuit found  the rejection of similar advertisements in southern Michigan buses by the governmental authority SMART to be constitutional under its policy prohibiting several categories of advertising including "political or political campaign advertising."  Last month, a Philadelphia district judge granted a preliminary injunction in favor of AFDI and found SEPTA's anti-disparagement  standard for advertising on its buses, and its rejection of the proffered AFDI advertisement, violates the First Amendment.  On the other hand, also last month, the Ninth Circuit upheld the rejection of advertisements proposed by Seattle Mideast Awareness Campaign applying a limited public forum doctrine. 

Judge Koeltl described the advert, known as the "Killing Jews" ad,  as portraying

a menacing-looking man whose head and face are mostly covered by a head scarf. The ad includes a quote from “Hamas MTV”: “Killing Jews is Worship that draws us close to Allah.” Underneath the quote, the ad stated: “That’s His Jihad. What’s yours?”

The MTA determined that the ad violated MTA Standard § (a)(x), prohibiting material “the display of which the MTA reasonably foresees would imminently incite or provoke violence or other immediate breach of the peace.”  Thus, the MTA argued that it excluded the Killing Jews ad because it falls into two separate categories of unprotected speech: “fighting words,” under Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942), and incitement of violence or lawlessness under Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969).

Judge Koeltl held that "this case plainly does not present the rare occurrence where one of these seldom-applied categories is met."

Koeltl's reasoning rested on the MTA's failure to show that this particular ad would immediately provoke violence.  The judge discounted the MTA's argument that NYC is a preferred "terrorism target" in favor of a view of a multicultural urbanity:

Indeed, the defendants [MTA] underestimate the tolerant quality of New Yorkers and overestimate the potential impact of these fleeting advertisements. It strains credulity to believe that New Yorkers would be incited to violence by ads that did not incite residents of Chicago and San Francisco to similar acts. This is not to minimize the terror threats to New York City, but those threats do not arise from these fleeting advertisements.

Subjecting the advertisement's rejection to strict scrutiny, the judge further held that the exclusion of the Killing Jews ad is not narrowly tailored to achieve any security interests.  "Rather than banning an advertisement outright, the transit authorities could run the disputed advertisement with adjacent disclaimers, or counter-advertisements, expressing disagreement with the ad and/or explaining its context," including its parodying of another ad campaign regarding the positive aspects of the word "jihad."

While these "more speech" suggestions are directed to the MTA, New Yorkers have also been known to resort to individualized attempts at "more speech," raising the problem of the MTA's efforts to combat "vandalism."

April 22, 2015 in Current Affairs, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Guide to the Amicus Briefs in Obergefell v. Hodges: The Same-Sex Marriage Cases

The United States Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments on April 28 in the same-sex marriage cases, now styled as Obergefell v. Hodges, a consolidated appeal from the Sixth Circuit’s decision in DeBoer v. Snyder, reversing the district court decisions in  Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee that had held the same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional, and creating a circuit split.    

 Recall that the Court certified two questions:

    1)Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex?

    2) Does the Fourteenth Amendment require a state to recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and performed out-of-state? 

The case has attracted what seems to be a record number of amicus briefs.  As we discussed last year, previous top amicus brief attractors were the same-sex marriage cases of Windsor and Perry, which garnered 96 and 80 amicus briefs respectively, and the 2013 affirmative action case of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, which attracted 92.  [Note that the "Obamacare" Affordable Care Act cases including 2012's consolidated cases of  NFIB v. Sebelius attracted 136 amicus briefs.]

The count for Obergefell v. Hodges stands at  139. 147  [updated: 17 April 2015]  149 [updated]  LINKS TO ALL THE BRIEFS ARE AVAILABLE ON THE ABA WEBSITE HERE.

 76  77 amicus briefs support the Petitioners, who contend that same-sex marriage bans are unconstitutional.

58 66 67 amicus briefs support the Respondents, who contend that same-sex marriage bans are constitutional.

05 amicus briefs support neither party (but as described below, generally support Respondents).

According to the Rules of the Supreme Court of the United States, Rule 37, an amicus curiae brief’s purpose is to bring to the attention of the Court “relevant matter not already brought to its attention by the parties.”  While such a brief “may be of considerable help to the Court,” an  “amicus curiae brief that does not serve this purpose burdens the Court, and its filing is not favored.”

 An impressive number of the Amicus Briefs are authored or signed by law professors.  Other Amici include academics in other fields, academic institutions or programs, governmental entities or persons, organizations, and individuals, often in combination.  Some of these have been previously involved in same-sex marriage or sexuality issues and others less obviously so, with a number being religious organizations. Several of these briefs have been profiled in the press; all are linked on the Supreme Court’s website and on SCOTUSBlog.

Here is a quick - - - if lengthy - - - summary of the Amici and their arguments, organized by party being supported and within that, by identity of Amici, beginning with briefs having substantial law professor involvement, then government parties or persons, then non-legal academics, followed by organizations including religious groups, and finally by those offering individual perspectives.  [Late additions appear below]Special thanks to City University of New York (CUNY)  School of Law Class of 2016 students, Aliya Shain & AnnaJames Wipfler, for excellent research.


Continue reading

April 16, 2015 in Courts and Judging, Equal Protection, Establishment Clause, Family, Federalism, First Amendment, Foreign Affairs, Fourteenth Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Full Faith and Credit Clause, Fundamental Rights, Gender, History, Interpretation, Privacy, Profiles in Con Law Teaching, Race, Recent Cases, Reproductive Rights, Scholarship, Sexual Orientation, Sexuality, Standing, Supreme Court (US), Theory | Permalink | Comments (3)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Canadian Supreme Court Finds Opening Prayer at Town Meeting Unconstitutional

In a case with similarities to Town of Greece, NY v. Galloway decided by the United States Supreme Court last year, the Supreme Court of Canada today rendered its judgment in Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City) finding that a prayer at a municipal council meeting violated the constitution.

MapleleafAs the Court explains the underlying facts:

S regularly attended the public meetings of the municipal council of the City of Saguenay [Quebec]. At the start of each meeting, the mayor would recite a prayer after making the sign of the cross while saying [translation] “in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit”. The prayer also ended with the sign of the cross and the same words. Other councillors and City officials would cross themselves at the beginning and end of the prayer as well. In one of the council chambers, there was a Sacred Heart statue fitted with a red electric votive light. In another, there was a crucifix hanging on the wall. S, who considers himself an atheist, felt uncomfortable with this display, which he considered religious, and asked the mayor to stop the practice. When the mayor refused, S complained to the Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse. He argued that his freedom of conscience and religion was being infringed, contrary to ss. 3 and 10 of the Quebec Charter, and asked that the recitation of the prayer cease and that all religious symbols be removed from council chambers.

The original Tribunal found the practice unconstitutional, but the Court of Appeal held that the prayer "expressed universal values" and "could not be identified with any particular religion."  It also reasoned that the "religious symbols were works of art that were devoid of religious connotation and did not affect the state’s neutrality." According to the Court of Appeal, S had not been discriminated against on the ground of freedom of conscience and religion; any interference with S's beliefs was "trivial or insubstantial."

While some of the issues before the Supreme Court of Canada involved procedural ones regarding the appeal, the Court was clear that the municipality's practice was unconstitutional.  Similar to an analysis under the US Constitution's First Amendment, the Supreme Court of Canada grappled with issues such as hostility to religion and the "slippery slope" of other religious practices:

The prayer recited by the municipal council in breach of the state’s duty of neutrality resulted in a distinction, exclusion and preference based on religion — that is, based on S’s sincere atheism — which, in combination with the circumstances in which the prayer was recited, turned the meetings into a preferential space for people with theistic beliefs. The latter could participate in municipal democracy in an environment favourable to the expression of their beliefs. Although non‑believers could also participate, the price for doing so was isolation, exclusion and stigmatization. This impaired S’s right to exercise his freedom of conscience and religion. The attempt at accommodation provided for in the by‑law, namely giving those who preferred not to attend the recitation of the prayer the time they needed to re‑enter the council chamber, had the effect of exacerbating the discrimination. The Tribunal’s findings to the effect that the interference with S’s freedom of conscience and religion was more than trivial or insubstantial were supported by solid evidence, and deference is owed to the Tribunal’s assessment of the effect of the prayer on S’s freedom of conscience and religion.

  Barring the municipal council from reciting the prayer would not amount to giving atheism and agnosticism prevalence over religious beliefs. There is a distinction between unbelief and true neutrality. True neutrality presupposes abstention, but it does not amount to a stand favouring one view over another. Moreover, it has not been established in this case that the prayer is non‑denominational. The Tribunal’s findings of fact instead tend toward the opposite result. Be that as it may, the respondents themselves conceded at the hearing that the prayer is nonetheless a religious practice. Even if it is said to be inclusive, it may nevertheless exclude non-believers. As for the proposed analogy to the prayer recited by the Speaker of the House of Commons, in the absence of evidence concerning that prayer, it would be inappropriate to use it to support a finding that the City’s prayer is valid. Finally, the reference to the supremacy of God in the preamble to the Canadian Charter cannot lead to an interpretation of freedom of conscience and religion that authorizes the state to consciously profess a theistic faith. The preamble articulates the political theory on which the Charter’s protections are based. The express provisions of the Canadian Charter and of the Quebec Charter, such as those regarding freedom of conscience and religion, must be given a generous and expansive interpretation. This is necessary to ensure that those to whom these charters apply enjoy the full benefit of the rights and freedoms, and that the purpose of the charters is attained.

The Court explicitly linked the state's duty of neutrality - - - akin to the First Amendment's (anti-)Establishment Clause - - - to the maintenance of a free and democratic society. "This pursuit requires the state to encourage everyone to participate freely in public life regardless of their beliefs."  This principle may have special resonance when one considers the largely French (and Catholic) Quebec as compared to the other largely English (and Protestant) other provinces.


Unlike the United States Supreme Court's opinion in Town of Greece, the Supreme Court of Canada's judgment is not closely divided; only one Justice writes separately to discuss some of the procedural issues, but otherwise concurs.  For US ConLawProfs, City of Saguenay is well worth a comparative read.


April 15, 2015 in Comparative Constitutionalism, Establishment Clause, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Religion, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, April 3, 2015

En Banc Ninth Circuit Rejects First Amendment Challenge to Ballot Initiative Sponsor Requirements

The en banc Ninth Circuit's opinion in Chula Vista Citizens for Jobs and Fair Competition v. Norris  rejected First Amendment challenges to two requirements that the State of California and the City of Chula Vista, California, place on persons who wish to sponsor a local ballot measure: 

that the official proponent of a ballot measure be an elector, thereby disqualifying corporations and associations from holding that position; and

that the official proponent’s name appear on each section of the initiative petition that is circulated to voters for their signature.

Writing for the unanimous en banc court and affirming the district judge, Judge Reinhardt concluded that the provisions were "plainly constitutional."

image via

On the first provision, the court held that the requirement that an official proponent—a person seeking a unique position in a quintessentially legislative process—be an elector satisfied the First Amendment.  It concluded that

The plaintiffs seek a legislative power and, as they conceded at oral argument, many legislative and official political acts are properly reserved to members of the electorate. For example, corporations cannot vote.  Nor can they run for political office or be appointed to fill vacancies. Under California law, they cannot sign initiative petitions, sign candidate nominating papers, or introduce legislation,  The plaintiffs fail to provide any reason—and we find none—that the state and city may not similarly limit the exercise of the initiative power to members of the relevant political community: electors.

[citations omitted].  The Ninth Circuit rejected the challengers' appeal to Citizens United v. FEC (2010) as mandating strict scrutiny.  The challengers argued strict scrutiny was warranted because the California requirement is a direct ban on core political speech;  bans disfavored speakers’ speech; and requires speech by proxy.  The Ninth Circuit opinion flatly stated that the challengers "are wrong."  While the initiative process involves core political speech, the ban is only directed at corporations being the "official proponent—a unique legislative position that may properly be reserved to members of the political community" and corporations can otherwise speak as much as they'd like.  As to corporations specifically, the court returned to the notion that corporations are distinct from natural persons, they do not have "the right to vote or to hold public office (or even to sit on the bench)" as the plaintiffs seemingly conceded.  "We accordingly refuse to extend Citizens United to grant to corporations and associations the right to hold a distinct, official role in the process of legislating, by initiative or otherwise."  Finally, the court summarily rejected the speech by proxy argument:

Under the plaintiffs’ view of Citizens United, the government could not exclude corporations or associations from any position available to human beings because to do so would impermissibly require speech by proxy—an assertion that is clearly untenable.

 The second requirement - - - mandating disclosure - - - was subject to "exacting scrutiny" rather than the higher standard of "strict scrutiny," in accordance with Citizens United.  The Ninth Circuit also relied heavily on Doe v. Reed (2010) in which the Court upheld disclosure and rejected a "right to be anonymous" when signing a ballot initiative petition. Here, the Ninth Circuit likewise upheld an interest in the integrity of the electoral process, citing Doe v. Reed, and also analyzed the informational interest. The Ninth Circuit also took a swipe at the sincerity of the anonymity argument:

It also bears noting, although we do not base our decision on it in any respect, that the interest of the proponents in anonymity is especially weak given the facts of the instant case. Both Kneebone and Breitfelder engaged in public activities advocating passage of Proposition G beyond the activities required of them as its official proponents, speaking at televised public meetings and having their names used in campaign materials provided to voters. Moreover, they explained in depositions that they did not really desire anonymity, but rather “wanted voters to know that the ‘correct’ sponsor of the ballot initiative was the Association of Builders and Contractors, Inc. and the Chula Vista Citizens for Jobs and Fair Competition.”

More doctrinally, the court concluded that the required "disclosure poses at the most a minimal burden on First Amendment rights."

 The decision is a clear rejection of an extension of Citizens United to any type of "corporate speech" and a clear adherence to the constitutionality of disclosure mandates in both Citizens United and Doe v. Reed.  And it should be clear that this unanimous opinion is not a good candidate for certiorari.

April 3, 2015 in Elections and Voting, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, March 30, 2015

Supreme Court Denies Certiorari to School's Ban on American Flag Clothing for Cinco de Mayo

In a summary order today,  the United States Supreme Court listed among the cases denied certiorari the controversial "Cinco de Mayo" case, Dariano v. Morgan Hill Unified School District. 

available via

The original controversy began with a claim by students that their constitutional rights were violated when school officials banned their American flag clothing during a Cinco de Mayo celebration.  The school officials regulated American flag clothing "in [the] context of ongoing racial tension and gang violence within the school, and after a near-violent altercation had erupted during the prior Cinco de Mayo over the display of an American flag.”  The district judge rejected the students' First Amendment and Equal Protection claims.  The Ninth Circuit affirmed,  and later denied en banc review, over a dissent, and issued an amended panel opinion which added several paragraphs of analysis.

The application of the classic Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969) was predictable, but the amended opinion also discussed the “heckler’s veto,” a concept that is in some senses embedded in Tinker's "disruption" standard.

However, with the denial of certiorari, this particular  controversy - - - which had often been expressed as allowing a school district to ban the American flag - - - has apparently been decided, at least in the context of this particular school for a particular holiday on a particular year. 

However, as the opinion of the Ninth Circuit as amended noted, situations involving displays of the Confederate flag in the school context have been frequently litigated.   And this Term, the Court is considering a Confederate flag outside the school context in the "license plate" case just argued last week, Walker v. Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans.

March 30, 2015 in Equal Protection, First Amendment, Speech, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, March 23, 2015

Court Hears Oral Arguments in Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans About Specialty License Plate

The Court heard oral arguments today in Walker v. Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans involving a First Amendment challenge to the denial of a specialty license plate requested by the Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans.

As we noted when certiorari was granted, the Fifth Circuit's divided opinion, reversing the district judge, found that the denial violated the First Amendment as impermissible viewpoint and content discrimination.  License plate schemes have been well-litigated: The Fourth Circuit recently held that North Carolina's provision of a "Choose Life" specialty license plate violated the First Amendment; the New Hampshire Supreme Court invalidated a vanity license plate regulation requiring "good taste"; a Michigan federal district judge similarly invalidated a refusal of specific letters on a vanity plate; and on remand from the Tenth Circuit, the design of the Oklahoma standard license plate was upheld.

622x350The doctrinal problems involving the Sons of Confederate Veterans proposed specialty plate, bearing the Confederate flag and rejected by Texas, surfaced during the oral arguments.

First, there is the issue of whether the specialty license plate had become a traditional public forum.  Justice Kennedy seemingly tended toward this view, noting - - - twice - - - that no one goes to parks anymore and so these license plates may be a new public forum for a new era. 

Less specifically articulated was whether if there was a limited public forum in the license plates this could have any meaning at all because there were no real standards.  Justice Ginsburg quickly asked the Texas Solicitor General, defending the constitutionality of the state scheme, whether it wasn't "nebulous."  The number of specialty license plates approved and the very few disapproved was noted several times, again making it seem as if any designation was not at all clear.

The notion of government speech was raised at numerous points, echoing the opinion of Fifth Circuit Judge Jerry Smith who had dissented and  contended that the doctrine of government speech articulated in the Court's unanimous Pleasant Grove City v. Summum (2009) controls: there is no meaningful distinction between the privately placed monuments in Summum and the license plates in Texas.

Yet Justice Sotomayor suggested that this might be "hybrid speech," asking counsel for the Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans whether this might not be the "reverse" of Wooley v. Maynard (1977): why should the State be compelled to put something on its license plates that it disapproves?

That the state might be seen as endorsing problematical messages surfaced repeatedly, including this discussion with counsel for the Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans:

JUSTICE GINSBURG: Suppose ­­ suppose the message ­­ the ­­ the applicant said, we want this design, and the design is a swastika. Is that speech that ­­ does ­­ does the ­­ the ­­ whoever is in charge of it ­­ of the license plate, do they have to accept ­­- - -
MR. GEORGE: I don't believe the State can discriminate against the people who want to have that design ­­- - -

JUSTICE GINSBURG: So they could have the swastika.  And suppose somebody else says, I want to have "Jihad" on my license plate.  That's okay, too?

MR. GEORGE: Vegan?


MR. GEORGE: Jihad. Jihad on the license plate? Can be ­­ there is obviously a court of appeal ­­ a district court from Ohio in which "Infidels" was held to be ­­ the State ­­


JUSTICE KENNEDY: What is your answer in this case as to Justice Ginsburg's hypothetical?  Yes or no, must the State put those symbols or messages on the plates at the request of the citizen?  Yes or no?


This prospect seemed worrisome.  But seemingly equally worrisome was the prospect of absolute government discretion manifested by the recurring hypothetical of a government allowing "Vote Republican" but not "Vote Democratic" on the specialty plates, a situation that is arguably consistent with Summum's interpretation of government speech.  Perhaps Sotomayor's suggested "hybrid speech" may be a compromise.  Or less likely, the Court could further clarify public forum and limited (designated) public forum doctrine.


March 23, 2015 in Federalism, First Amendment, Oral Argument Analysis, Speech, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Ninth Circuit Upholds Rejection of Anti-Israel Ad on Metro Bus

The Ninth Circuit this week upheld a county's decision to reject an ad critical of Israel (and U.S. support for Israel) on the side of a Metro bus against a First Amendment challenge. The ruling says that the bus side is a limited public forum, subject to a lower level of scrutiny--a holding at odds with holdings in other circuits in similar cases--and concluded that the county's rejection of the ad met that lower standard.

We posted just last week on SEPTA's (Southeastern Pennsylvania) rejection of an anti-Muslim ad--and a district judge's ruling that the rejection violated the First Amendment. Here's our post on a federal case out of New York going the same way; and here's our post on the Sixth Circuit, moving in the opposite direction.

King County, Washington, which runs Metro's bus advertising program through a contract with a private company, has a policy that prohibits ads with certain content (ads for alcohol and tobacco, adult movies, video games for mature audiences, and the like). The policy also has two catch-all "civility clauses" that prohibit material that would foreseebly result in disruption of the transportation system or incite a response that threatens public safety.

SeaMAC, a non-profit opposed to U.S. support for Israel, proposed a Metro ad that read:



The county initially approved the ad. But a local television report on the ad provoked a massive hostile, even threatening, response, which overwhelmed the Metro call center and employees' e-mails and caused many customers to express safety concerns.

Soon after the story ran, but before Metro ran SeaMAC's ad, two pro-Israeli groups submitted their own ads:



And (with a picture of Hitler):



Given the hostile reaction to SeaMAC's ad, the county rejected both groups' ads under one of the civility clauses, and SeaMAC sued.

The Ninth Circuit ruled that the side of Metro buses was a limited public forum (not a public forum or designated public forum), based on the pre-screening process for ads, the county's prior implementation (it had not categorically accepted ads, and it had rejected some), and the nature of the side of a bus (the purpose of which was to raise revenue through ad sales).

The court recognized that this put it at odds with other circuits that have held that bus sides were a designated public forum (subject to strict scrutiny). But it said that those courts made a mistake:

Some of those courts, in our view, mistakenly concluded that if the government opens a forum and is willing to accept political speech, it has necessarily signaled an intent to create a designated public forum. Neither the First Amendment nor the Supreme Court's public forum precedent impose that categorical rule.

The court went on to rule that the county's decision was reasonable and viewpoint neutral, and therefore valid.

The dissent argued that the sides of Metro's buses were a designated public forum, subject to strict scrutiny, that the civility clause gave the county too much discretion, and that the county's decision (in light of the hostile reaction to SeaMAC's ad) raised heckler veto problems. The dissent would have remanded the case for determination whether the county's decision satisfied strict scrutiny.

March 19, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)