Thursday, October 1, 2015

Court Grants Certiorari in First Amendment Political Activity by Public Employee Case

The United States Supreme Court has granted certiorari in Heffernan v. Paterson in which the Third Circuit's opinion affirmed summary judgment for the City of Paterson against a First Amendment claim for retaliatory action against police officer Jeffrey Heffernan. 

At issue is whether the mistaken belief of a supervisor that an employee was engaging in political activity.  The police officer was seen picking up a mayoral campaign sign at the request of his "bedridden mother" to "replace a smaller one that had been stolen from her lawn."  Heffernan insisted that he was not involved in the campaign and actually did not support the same candidate as his mother.

The petition for certiorari argues that there is a split in the circuits on this issue.



There seems to be a lack of clarity in the circuits on this issue. 



October 1, 2015 in First Amendment, Speech, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

California Court Upholds Anti-Paparazzi Law Against First Amendment Challenge

California's so-called anti-paparazzi law has been upheld against a facial First Amendment challenge by a state appellate court in its opinion in Raef v. Superior Court of Los AngelesRecall that Paul Raef was charged under California Vehicle Code, section 40008, subdivision (a) which increases the punishment for reckless driving and other traffic offenses committed with the intent to capture an image, sound recording, or other physical impression of another person for a commercial purpose for his  "alleged high-speed pursuit of pop star Justin Bieber and failure to stop when police attempted to pull him over."  The court concluded that the Vehicle Code provision is a law of general application that does not single out the press for special treatment, does not target speech, and is neither vague nor overbroad.

Banksy, "Photo Rat" via

The court reasoned that Vehicle Code section 40008 is not limited to paparazzi chasing celebrities or reporters gathering news. Instead, the statute targets “any person” who commits an enumerated traffic offense with the intent to capture the image, sound, or physical impression of “another person” for a commercial purpose.  The court distinguished both Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co. v. Minnesota Comm’r of Revenue (1983), finding a paper and ink tax unconstitutional,  and Simon & Schuster, Inc. v. Members of New York State Crime Victims Board (1991), holding NY's "Son of Sam" law unconstitutional. 

In considering the expressive activity of taking photographs, the court considered ACLU v. Alvarez in which the Seventh Circuit held unconstitutional a broad anti-eavesdropping statute prohibiting video recording of police officers.  But  the court reasoned that even assuming "that the intent to take a photograph or make a recording of another person generally is entitled to First Amendment protection as a speech-producing activity, we are not persuaded that section 40008 punishes that intent per se or that the commercial purpose requirement imposes a content-based restriction on speech."

Instead, the court relied on Wisconsin v. Mitchell (1993) - - - even as it recognized the differences in the enhanced penalties for a bias crime - - - to conclude that it is the conduct not the intent that is being punished:

the conduct which section 40008 targets is not garden-variety tailgating, reckless driving, or interference with the driver’s control of a vehicle. It involves “relentless” pursuits of targeted individuals on public streets, as well as corralling and deliberately colliding with their vehicles. Such goal-oriented conduct hounds the targeted individuals, causing them to react defensively and escalating the danger to the violators, the targeted individuals, and the public. Because the predicate statutes do not require that the traffic offenses be committed with a specific intent and for a particular purpose, it cannot be said that the conduct they punish is indistinguishable from that subject to section 40008.

The court also rejected the argument that the statute made a content-based distinction of "commercial purpose", based in last Term's opinion in Reed v. Town of Gilbert. Relatedly, the court found that Reed's language did not support any finding that the California statute was targeted at First Amendment activity.  "Since the legal sanction is triggered by the noncommunicative aspects of the violator’s conduct, any incidental effect on speech does not necessarily raise First Amendment concerns."  And finally, the court found that any incidental burden on speech survives intermediate scrutiny.

As to overbreadth and vagueness, the court reiterated the standard for a facial challenge and noted that

   To the extent that Raef and amici are concerned about “the possibility of overzealousness on the part of the arresting officer and not vagueness in the criminal statute,” their concerns “can be adequately dealt with in the course of prosecution of individual cases on their individual facts.” . . . . Hypothetical concerns over potential misuse of the statute to unfairly target the press do not justify invalidating it on its face.

Thus it seems Paul Raef may be raising the as-applied challenges to his prosecution under the statute.

September 30, 2015 in First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 28, 2015

Ninth Circuit Rejects Franchisers' Constitutional Challenges to Seattle's $15 Minimum Wage

Affirming the district judge's denial of a preliminary injunction, the Ninth Circuit's opinion in International Franchise Ass'n v. City of Seattle rejected all of the constitutional challenges to a Seattle provision that deemed franchises included in the definition of "large employers" and thus subject to the new $15 minimum wage.  Recall that the complaint challenged  the provision under the (dormant) commerce clause, equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, the First Amendment, preemption under the Lanham Act (trademarks), and state constitutional provisions.

Photo by Steve Rhodes via

The unanimous Ninth Circuit panel's opinion found that there was not a likelihood of success on any of the constitutional claims, devoting most of its analysis to dormant commerce clause doctrine.  The panel first rejected the argument that the franchise regulation expressly discriminated against franchises as interstate commerce and was thus not "facially neutral." The panel also rejected the argument that the Seattle provision had a discriminatory purpose, noting that while there was some evidence that some persons involved in considering the issue were critical of franchise employment practices, even the strongest evidence of this (in an email), did not show that even this person "intended to burden out-of-state firms or interfere with the wheels of interstate commerce," and "[m]ore importantly, they also do not show that City officials wished to discriminate against out-of- state entities, bolster in-state firms, or burden interstate commerce."  Lastly, the panel rejected the argument that the Seattle provision discriminatory effects, agreeing with the district judge that the United States Supreme Court's decisions on dormant commerce clause can be "difficult to reconcile" and noting:

 We lack Supreme Court authority assessing whether a regulation affecting franchises ipso facto has the effect of discriminating against interstate commerce. Nor has the Supreme Court addressed whether franchises are instrumentalities of interstate commerce that cannot be subjected to disparate regulatory burdens. While regulations that expressly classify based on business structure or impose disparate burdens on franchises present interesting questions, our review is limited to considering whether the district court applied improper legal principles or clearly erred in reviewing the record.

 The footnote to this paragraph includes an extensive citation to lower courts that have considered the issue of whether measures that affect national chains violate the dormant Commerce Clause.  The Ninth Circuit panel concluded:

[T]he evidence that the ordinance will burden interstate commerce is not substantial. It does not show that interstate firms will be excluded from the market, earn less revenue or profit, lose customers, or close or reduce stores. Nor does it show that new franchisees will not enter the market or that franchisors will suffer adverse effects.

The Ninth Circuit panel dispatched the Equal Protection Clause claim much more expeditiously.  The Ninth Circuit applied the lowest form of rational basis scrutiny  - - - citing F.C.C. v. Beach Commc’ns, Inc. (1993) sometimes called "anything goes" rational basis - - - and finding there was a legitimate purpose (without animus) and the law was reasonably related to that purpose.

The court's discussion of the First Amendment claim was similarly brief, not surprising given that the court found the Speech Clause's threshold requirement of "speech"  was absent: "Seattle’s minimum wage ordinance is plainly an economic regulation that does not target speech or expressive conduct."

Additionally, the court agreed with the district judge that there was no preemption under the Lanham Act and no violation of the Washington State Constitution.

The Ninth Circuit panel did disagree with the district judge regarding some minor aspects of the non-likelihood to prevail on the merits preliminary injunction factors.  But on the whole, the opinion is a strong rebuke to the constitutional challenges to the Seattle laws.

Given the stakes (and the attorneys for the franchisers) a petition for certiorari is a distinct possibility.  Meanwhile, as we suggested when the case was filed, for ConLawProfs looking for a good exam review or exam problem, International Franchise Ass'n v. Seattle has much potential.

September 28, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Current Affairs, Dormant Commerce Clause, Equal Protection, First Amendment, Food and Drink, Fourteenth Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech, State Constitutional Law, Supreme Court (US), Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Sixth Circuit Finds Standing in "Juggalo" Constitutional Challenge to Gang Designation

In its opinion in Parsons v. Department of Justice today, a panel of the Sixth Circuit reversed the district judge's dismissal of a complaint for lack of standing by individuals who identify as "Juggalos"  a group the FBI's National Gang Intelligence Center (NGIC) has identified as a "hybrid gang."  The individuals alleged that "they subsequently suffered violations of their First and Fifth Amendment constitutional rights at the hands of state and local law enforcement officers who were motivated to commit the injuries in question due to the identification of Juggalos as a criminal gang."

                                                                                                                 image via

As the court explained, Juggalos are fans of Insane Clown Posse, a musical group, and its record label, Psychopathic Records, who often wear or display Insane Clown Posse tattoos or insignia, as well as paint their faces. The complaint alleged various actions by law enforcement, including detentions and inference with performances, as a result of the gang designation.

The court found that while their allegations of chilled expression were insufficient to rise to the requisite "injury in fact" required under standing doctrine,

The Juggalos’ allegations that their First Amendment rights are being chilled are accompanied by allegations of concrete reputational injuries resulting in allegedly improper stops, detentions, interrogations, searches, denial of employment, and interference with contractual relations. Stigmatization also constitutes an injury in fact for standing purposes.  As required, these reputational injuries are cognizable claims under First Amendment and due process causes of action.

[citations omitted].  Thus, the court held that the injury in fact requirement was satisfied as to the First Amendment and due process claims.

As to causation, the court held that the Juggalos’ allegations "link" the gang report to their injuries "by stating that the law enforcement officials themselves acknowledged that the DOJ gang designation had caused them to take the actions in question."   Thus, at this initial stage of the case, the Juggalos’ allegations sufficed.

On the question of redressibility, the remedy sought included a finding that the gang report is invalid.  The court rejected the government's argument that such information about the Juggalos was available from other sources by stating that the test is not that the "harm be entirely redressed." "While we cannot be certain whether and how the declaration sought by the Juggalos will affect third-party law enforcement officers, it is reasonable to assume a likelihood that the injury would be partially redressed where, as here, the Juggalos have alleged that the law enforcement officers violated their rights because of" the government report.  The court seemingly found it pertinent that the DOJ's report gave the gang designation an impressive "imprimatur" of government authority.

As the Sixth Circuit made clear, the complaint remains subject to the motion to dismiss on other grounds, but this is an important victory for the Juggalo quest to remove its gang-identification.

September 17, 2015 in Due Process (Substantive), Fifth Amendment, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Federal Judge Finds Arrest for Obscenity Violates First Amendment - - - and Denies Prosecutorial Immunity

In her decision from the bench in Barboza v. D'Agata, federal district judge Cathy Seibel has not only found that the arrest of William Barboza violated the First Amendment but has granted summary judgment against a state prosecutor for a First Amendment violation and allowed a claim against the village to proceed.

0b0d6031e6e41dfbaf5986c2c98f3915After Barboza received a speeding ticket from Liberty, New York, he not only paid the fine but returned the form with "Liberty" in "Liberty Town Court" crossed off and replaced with "tyranny" and with the phrase "fuck your shitty town bitches" written in all caps and underlined.  (photo here).  An assistant district attorney, Robert Zangala, made a decision that the statement constituted "aggravated harassment" under NY Penal Law 240.30 (1) (a). While New York courts had rejected facial challenges to the subsection,  New York's highest court had found the statute unconstitutional as applied in a 2003 case in which the defendant had "left five voice messages on the Village of Ossining Parking Violations Bureau's answering machine in which the defendant rained invective on two village employees, wished them and their family ill health, and complained of their job performance as well as the tickets that she had received."  Judge Seibel found that decision was "on all fours" with the present case.

Importantly, the prosecutor not only charged Barboza, but participated in the plan to arrest Barboza when he came to court about the speeding ticket; a judge having ordered Barboza to appear. While Judge Seibel found that the prosecutor was entitled to absolute immunity for the decision to charge Barboza, he was not entitled to absolute immunity for the decision to have him arrested.  Moreover, Judge Seibel found that the prosecutor was not entitled to qualified immunity.  However, she did find that the police officers who actually made the arrest were entitled to qualified immunity.

Regarding the reasonableness of their actions, Judge Seibel's discussion about the differences between the police officers executing the arrest and the prosecutor is illuminating.   She stated that the precedent "distinguishing police officers from lawyers, which helps the officers, hurts Zangala," the prosecutor.

If cops are not expected to know what a lawyer would learn or intuit from researching case law, an assistant district attorney certainly is. And  there surely is nothing unfair or impracticable about holding a trained lawyer to the standard of trained lawyer. While it is reasonable for a police officer to rely in certain circumstances on the legal advice of a prosecutor, the prosecutor himself must be held to the standard of a trained lawyer.

And given that the assistant district attorney was a "trained lawyer," she held that he is "not saved by his getting approval from the District Attorney in the way that the officers are saved by complying and getting approval from an assistant district attorney."  Indeed, the prosecutor's actions are not reasonable "given that he had the time to do the relatively simple legal research but did not."  Additionally, Judge Seibel intimates that the prosecutor may have known that the arrest suffered from First Amendment infirmities and simply chose to continue.

Finally, Judge Seibel decided that the claim against the village could proceed on the issues of whether there was a sufficient pattern of similar violations, the obviousness of the risk of a violation (under a single incident theory), and whether the village's failure to train caused the arrest.

She also directed the parties to discuss settlement.

September 16, 2015 in Courts and Judging, Criminal Procedure, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 11, 2015

Federal District Judge Finds Town Ordinance Prohibiting Day Labor Solicitation Unconstitutional

In his opinion in Centro de La Comunidad Hispana de Locust Valley v. Town of Oyster Bay, United States District Judge Dennis Hurley held the town's ordinance prohibiting day labor solicitation unconstitutional under the First Amendment. 

The ordinance, Chapter 205-32 of the Code of the Town of Oyster Bay, sought to prohibit "any person standing within or adjacent to any public right-of-way within the Town of Oyster Bay to stop or attempt to stop any motor vehicle utilizing said public right-of-way for the purpose of soliciting employment of any kind from the occupants of said motor vehicle," and to similarly prohibit "the operator of any motor vehicle utilizing a public right-of-way within the Town of Oyster Bay to stop or stand within or adjacent to said public right-of-way or any area designated as either a traffic lane or a no-standing or no-stopping zone for the purpose of soliciting employment or accepting a solicitation of employment from a pedestrian."

Masonry circa 1425 via

After first discussing preliminary matters including standing, Judge Hurley's description of the parties' arguments offers a good illustration of the types of doctrinal choices available under the First Amendment:

Plaintiffs maintain that the Ordinance must be stricken as violative of the First Amendment. First, it is a content-based enactment, presumptively unconstitutional and not justified as narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest. Second, if viewed as a “time, place or manner restriction” and not content- based, it is not narrowly tailored to serve “legitimate, content-neutral interest.” Third, even if viewed as restricting purely commercial speech, it is not narrowly tailored.

Defendants offer several arguments in response. First, the Ordinance does not affect expressive speech; rather, it regulates conduct. Second, day labor solicitation is commercial speech. As such, it is entitled to no protection because it relates to illegal activity; alternatively, the ordinance is a constitutional restriction of commercial speech. Finally, to the extent it is viewed as a time, place or manner restriction, it is narrowly tailored.

 Judge Hurley decided that the ordinance was a content-based regulation of commercial speech.  He thus applied the well-established four prong Central Hudson test, Central Hudson Gas & Elec. Corp. v. Public Service Comm’n of New York (1980), as "adjusted" by Sorrell v. IMS Health Inc. (2011).

In deciding that the ordinance was content-based, Judge Hurley quoted the Court's recent decision in Reed v. Town of Gilbert (2015), including the passage that regarding the "commonsense" meaning of the phrase.  Here, Judge Hurley noted, to enforce the ordinance the Town authorities would have to "examine the content of the message conveyed."

Not surprisingly then, Judge Hurley found that the ordinance failed the fourth prong of Central Hudson - - - “whether the regulation is more extensive that necessary to serve the governmental interest” - - - given that the content-based restriction should be "narrowly tailored" and that there were "less speech-restrictive alternatives available."  He wrote:

Because of its breath, the ordinance prohibits speech and conduct of an expressive nature that does not pose a threat to safety on the Town’s streets and sidewalks. It reaches a lone person standing on the sidewalk, away from the curb, who attempts to make known to the occupants of vehicles his availability for work even if it does not result in a car stopping in traffic or double parking. It reaches children selling lemonade at the end of a neighbor’s driveway (which is, after all, “adjacent to” a public right of way), the veteran holding a sign on a sidewalk stating “will work for food,” and students standing on the side of a road advertising a school carwash. Even a person standing on the sidewalk holding a sign “looking for work - park at the curb if you are interested in hiring me” would violate the ordinance as it contains no specific intent element and no requirement that the “attempt to stop” result in traffic congestion, the obstruction of other Vehicles, or double parking. The Ordinance applies to all streets and roadways in the Town regardless of traffic flow and in the absence of any evidence that the traffic issues the Town relies on to support its interest exist elsewhere in the Town.

In support of this final observation, Judge Hurley quotes the Court's buffer-zone decision in McCullen v. Coakley (2014).

Interestingly, although Judge Hurley did not reach the Equal Protection challenge because he found the Ordinance unconstitutional under the the First Amendment, he provides a glimmer of the Equal Protection difficulty in the Town's position:

Nor is it any comfort that the Town’s safety officers will use their discretion, or be “trained” on how to determine whether a person is soliciting employment or attempting to stop a vehicle to solicit employment. Such discretion may surely invite discriminatory enforcement. . . . . Will safety officers be instructed and/or use their discretion to ignore the students advertising a school car wash and the child selling lemonade on the sidewalk and to ticket the group of Latino men standing on a corner near a home improvement store?

Moreover, he concludes that other ordinances are more than adequate to address the specific problem of traffic safety.

Judge Hurley's conclusion that the Oyster Bay day labor solicitation violates the First Amendment is similar to the Ninth Circuit's 2013 decision in Valle Del Sol Inc. v. Whiting that the Arizona day labor solicitation provision in SB1070 was unconstitutional.  Should the Town appeal, the Second Circuit would most likely find Valle Del Sol persuasive, especially since the Court's subsequent opinions provide even more support.

September 11, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Equal Protection, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 7, 2015

Third Circuit Finds Teacher's Blog Comments About Students Not Protected By First Amendment Issue

In its opinion in Munroe v. Central Bucks School District, a divided panel of the Third Circuit found that a public school teacher's blog posts about students did not "rise to the level of constitutionally protected expression" under the First Amendment and thus they could be the basis of her termination.  Agreeing with the district judge, the majority thus concluded that the balancing test of  Pickering v. Board of Education (1968) was not satisfied.

The majority's opinion, authored by Judge Robert Cowen and joined by Judge Jane A. Restani of the United States Court of International Trade, sitting by designation, details the offending blog posts including one in which Munroe stated she was "blogging AT work," (capitalization in original), and offered alternative "canned" comments for student evaluations including:  "Sneaking, complaining, jerkoff"; "Whiny, simpering grade-grubber with an unrealistically high perception of own ability level"; and "Am concerned that your kid is going to come in one day and open fire on the school. (Wish I was kidding.)"  

Schoolroom circa 1896 via

Later posts were equally unflattering about students and teaching.  And while the blog was originally subscribed to by a handful of people, some posts circulated and attracted the interest of the press.  Termination was contemplated, Munroe took a scheduled maternity leave, and also did her own interviews with the press. 

The majority's opinion "reluctantly" concludes that Munroe's speech implicated a matter of public concern, but then diminishes any public concern, and then reinstates it and states that: 

Given our assessment of the interests of Munroe and the public in her speech, Defendants were not required to make an especially vigorous showing of actual or potential disruption in this case. However, even if we were to assume arguendo that her speech “possesses the highest value,”  we would still conclude that Defendants met their burden. Simply put, “Plaintiff’s speech, in both effect and tone, was sufficiently disruptive so as to diminish any legitimate interest in its expression, and thus her expression was not protected.”

Interestingly, the majority also seems to hold teachers to a higher standard - - - despite the fact that Pickering itself involved a school teacher.  While recognizing that the parents objecting to Munroe's speech cannot constitutionally be a "heckler's veto" to protected speech, the court states:

However, there is a special (perhaps even unique) relationship that exists between a public school teacher (or other educators, like a guidance counselor), on the one hand, and his or her students and their parents, on the other hand. Simply put, neither parents nor students could be considered as outsiders seeking to “heckle” an educator into silence—“‘rather they are participants in public education, without whose cooperation public education as a practical matter cannot function.’”

 This notion could seriously erode teachers' First Amendment rights.   

 The dissent of Judge Thomas Ambro from the affirmance of summary judgment in favor of the defendant school district concludes:

In short, I have no doubt the School District was well aware that firing Munroe for her blog posts and media tour would land it in constitutional hot water. More than enough evidence suggests that firing her on performance grounds was a pretext for its real reason—she had spoken out to friends on a blog, it became public, School District officials were upset and proposed her termination, they decided to wait, the once- sterling evaluations of Munroe immediately became negative, and she was fired. The bottom line: too many signs suggest this was all a set-up that a jury needs to sort out.

A petition for en banc review is presumably forthcoming.

September 7, 2015 in First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, August 28, 2015

DC Circuit Finds No First Amendment Violation in Statute Limiting Expression at Supreme Court

In its substantial opinion in Hodge v. Talkin, a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit upheld the constitutionality of statutory prohibitions of assembly and display of flags or signs on the United States Supreme Court plaza.  

40 USC §6135 provides:

It is unlawful to parade, stand, or move in processions or assemblages in the Supreme Court Building or grounds, or to display in the Building and grounds a flag, banner, or device designed or adapted to bring into public notice a party, organization, or movement.

Hodge image
image of SCOTUS Building included in the opinion

Recall that almost two years ago, district judge Beryl Howell had found the statute unconstitutional in a well-reasoned and extensive opinion.  Judge Howell's ruling prompted the United States Supreme Court to swiftly respond by promulgating a new regulation that seemingly responded to at least some of the more problematical examples that Judge Howell identified such as preschoolers wearing a tee-shirt.  However, the DC Circuit's opinion reverses Judge Howell's decision without reliance on the limitations in the new policy.

Writing for a unanimous panel, Judge Sri Srinivasan notes that the United States Supreme Court's decision in United States v. Grace (1983) left the constitutional status of the plaza, when it decided that the sidewalks surrounding the perimeter of the Supreme Court building are public forums. However, Srinivasan relies on Grace for the distinction between the plaza and the sidewalks to conclude that the plaza is a nonpublic forum:

In marked contrast to the perimeter sidewalks considered in Grace, the Supreme Court plaza distinctively “indicate[s] to the public”—by its materials, design, and demarcation from the surrounding area—that it is very much a “part of the Supreme Court grounds.” [Grace.; Id. at 183.].  The plaza has been described as the opening stage of “a carefully choreographed, climbing path that ultimately ends at the courtroom itself.” Statement Concerning the Supreme Court’s Front Entrance, 2009 J. Sup. Ct. U.S. 831, 831 (2010) (Breyer, J.). For that reason, the Court’s plaza—unlike the surrounding public sidewalks, but like the courthouse it fronts—is a “nonpublic forum,” an area not traditionally kept open for expressive activity by the public. The government retains substantially greater leeway to limit expressive conduct in such an area and to preserve the property for its intended purposes: here, as the actual and symbolic entryway to the nation’s highest court and the judicial business conducted within it.

The opinion devotes attention to architectural description, which it admits in one case has "perhaps" a "degree of romanticism," and also likens the public forum characterization of the Supreme Court plaza to "the treatment of courthouses more generally" and to the controversial Lincoln Center plaza case; interestingly now-Justice Sotomayor was a judge on that panel.

As a nonpublic forum subject to the "lenient" First Amendment standard of reasonableness, the DC Circuit has little difficult in finding that the statute is "reasonable."  Interestingly, the United States Supreme Court's closely divided opinion last Term in Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar occupies a prominent role in this reasoning.  The opinion is discussed numerous times to support a conclusion that the government interests put forward here - - -  "the decorum and order befitting courthouses generally and the nation’s highest court in particular" and "the appearance and actuality of a Court whose deliberations are immune to public opinion and invulnerable to public pressure" - - - are both valid and being appropriately served.  Essentially, the DC Circuit's opinion embraces the "judiciary is special" sentiment and correctly notes that this prevailed in the strict scrutiny context of Williams-Yulee, so should suffice under the reasonableness standard.  

The DC Circuit's opinion similarly rejects the overbreadth and vagueness arguments that the statute is unconstitutional.

In essence, the DC Circuit finds the inclusion of the "grounds" in the statute as a place where assembly or "display" of opinion can be prohibited is appropriate line-drawing:

In the end, unless demonstrations are to be freely allowed inside the Supreme Court building itself, a line must be drawn somewhere along the route from the street to the Court’s front entrance. But where? At the front doors themselves? At the edge of the portico? At the bottom of the stairs ascending from the plaza to the portico? Or perhaps somewhere in the middle of the plaza? Among the options, it is fully reasonable for that line to be fixed at the point one leaves the concrete public sidewalk and enters the marble steps to the Court’s plaza, where the “physical and symbolic pathway to [the] chamber begins.” [citation to architectural work]

While the odds are increasingly low that the United States Supreme Court will accept any case on certiorari, the odds seem to approach nil that the Court will exercise its discretion to review this opinion.

August 28, 2015 in First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech, Standing, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, August 23, 2015

D.C. District Applies Reporter's Privilege to Non-Confidential Information

Judge Amit Mehta (D.D.C.) on Friday granted a reporter's motion to quash a subpoena by a drug manufacturer for non-confidential information related to the reporter's article recounting a critical study on one of the manufacturer's cancer drugs. (This was a bit piece of a larger shareholder class-action against the manufacturer, Amgen.)

The ruling applied the reporter's privilege under the First Amendment to non-confidential information in a civil suit. That part of the ruling aligns with other circuits that have ruled on the issue, even though the D.C. Circuit has yet to rule on it.

Judge Mehta also concluded that Amgen did not sufficiently seek the information through other sources before it issued its subpoena to reporter Paul Goldberg.

August 23, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Divided D.C. Circuit Again Finds Conflict Minerals Disclosure Violates the First Amendment

In its opinion on rehearing, a divided panel of the DC Circuit in National Association of Manufacturers v. Securities and Exchange Comm'n has held that 15 U.S.C. § 78m(p)(1)(A)(ii) & (E), part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, requiring a company to disclose if its products were not "DRC conflict free" violated the First Amendment. 

Rough diamonds from DRC via

In its previous decision more than a year ago in National Association of Manufacturers (NAM),  a majority of the same panel, in an opinion authored by Senior Judge Raymond Randolph and joined by Senior Judge David Sentelle, found the conflict mineral disclosure was a First Amendment violation.  In that 2014 opinion, Judge Srinivasan dissented on the First Amendment issue and contended that this opinion should be held in abeyance "pending the en banc court’s decision" in American Meat Institute v. United States Dep't of Agriculture, regarding a  First Amendment challenge to requiring country of origin labeling (COOL) of meat and meat products.  In the DC Circuit's en banc opinion a year ago, a divided court upheld the constitutionality of the COOL requirements.  The rehearing of the conflict minerals disclosure was prompted by that intervening en banc decision in American Meat Institute (AMI).  The panel majority essentially concluded that its mind was not changed by en banc opinion. [Neither of the senior judges in the panel majority participated in the en banc opinion in AMI].

Central to the controversies in both NAM and AMI is a choice of precedent: should the constitutionality of the labeling requirements be analyzed under  Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel  or under the more demanding standard of Central Hudson v. Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Service Commission of New York.  The DC Circuit's divided en banc opinion in AMI found that Zauderer should be applied.  In this rehearing in NAM, the panel majority (again) found that Zauderer had no applicability, but, as the opinion states, "for a different reason."  However, in sum this panel majority found that Zauderer is limited to "advertisements" at point of sale and seemed to contradict AMI.     

The panel majority did "hedge its bets":

But given the flux and uncertainty of the First Amendment doctrine of commercial speech,15 and the conflict in the circuits regarding the reach of Zauderer,  we think it prudent to add an alternative ground for our decision. It is this. Even if the compelled disclosures here are commercial speech and even if AMI’s view of Zauderer governed the analysis, we still believe that the statute and the regulations violate the First Amendment.

In applying Central Hudson, the panel majority found that the disclosure of conflict minerals has a merely speculative relationship to addressing the interest of the government in ameliorating conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a source of such minerals.  Instead, the disclosure is akin to political propaganda.  The majority interestingly cites George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four for its passages regarding government redefinition ("WAR IS PEACE"), and concludes that the disclosure is not only not factual but also controversial: it compels "an issuer to confess blood on its hands." 

In dissent, Judge Srinivasan argues that any Scarlet Letter comparison is inapt: "requiring a company to disclose product information in the commercial marketplace is not the same as requiring Hester Prynne to “show [her] scarlet letter in the [town] market- place.”  He asserts that the majority is misreading Zauderer and that the en banc opinion in AMI controls.  Interestingly, he also contends that to the extent the court is requiring "proof" that disclosure of conflict minerals be linked to amelioration of the DRC conflict, the court should be deferring to executive judgments in this commercial context at least as much as the Court did in the political speech context involved in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project. 

It seems likely that government attorneys are preparing its en banc petition. 

August 19, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Kentucky Court Clerk's "No Marriage License Policy" Going to Sixth Circuit

A few months after the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, reversing the Sixth Circuit's opinion, and declaring that the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, the issue of same-sex marriage is again reaching the Sixth Circuit. 

This time, however, the issue is whether a government employee, a court clerk in Kentucky, can refuse to issue same-sex marriage licenses - - - or any marriage licenses - - - based upon a claim of free exercise of religion.  The claim of religious exemptions from state clerks is not new (consider events in New York in 2011); neither are objections to implementing the Court's decision in Obergefell (consider events in Alabama this summer).  Nevertheless, this controversy has become particularly focused.

United States District Judge David Bunning's Opinion and Order last week in Miller v. Davis issued a preliminary injunction in favor of April Miller and Karen Roberts, enjoining Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis from applying the "no marriage licenses" policy.  The Judge rejected Davis' First Amendment claims.  First, Judge Bunning found that Governor Beshear's directive to county clerks to issue same-sex marriage licenses was a general law of neutral applicability that "likely does not infringe on Davis' free exercise rights."  Second, Judge Bunning further found that the issuance of the marriage license did not implicate Davis' free speech rights: the issuance of the license, even with the clerk's certification, is not an endorsement and furthermore is quite possibly government rather than individual speech, citing the Court's decision in Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans from last Term.  Judge Bunning also rejected Davis' third  - and perhaps the most interesting - claim based upon Article VI §3 prohibiting a "religious Test" as a qualification for public office.  Davis argued that this prohibition meant that her religious beliefs must be accommodated.  Even as he rejected this interpretation, Judge Bunning drew attention to the "first half" of Article VI §3 requiring state officials to take an oath to defend the United States Constitution. 

Davis predictably sought a stay of the preliminary injunction.  In an Order late yesterday, Judge Bunning denied the stay, including in his 7 page opinion an extensive quote from Obergefell regarding the relationship of religious freedom to same-sex marriage.  Yet Judge Bunning did stay the order denying the stay:

in recognition of the constitutional issues involved, and realizing that emotions are running high on both sides of the debate, the Court finds it appropriate to temporarily stay this Order pending review of Defendant Davis’ Motion to Stay (Doc. # 45) by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

While decisions to stay and to issue preliminary injunctions involve equitable and other factors, of central prominence is the probable outcome on the merits.  Thus, the Sixth Circuit is again poised to consider, albeit less directly, the issue of same-sex marriage. 

August 18, 2015 in Family, Federalism, First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Fundamental Rights, Interpretation, Opinion Analysis, Religion, Sexual Orientation, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, August 3, 2015

District Judge Holds Idaho's Ag-Gag Law Unconstitutional

Chief Judge B. Lynn Winmill for the United States District of Idaho today held Idaho's so-called "Ag-Gag" law, Idaho Code § 18-7042, unconstitutional in his  opinion in Animal Defense League v. Otter.  Judge Winmill found that the law violated both the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause.

The Idaho statute creates a new crime, “interference with agricultural production.” I.C. 18-7042. A person commits the crime of interference with agricultural production if the person knowingly:

(a) is not employed by an agricultural production facility and enters an agricultural production facility by force, threat, misrepresentation or trespass;

(b) obtains records of an agricultural production facility by force, threat, misrepresentation or trespass;

(c) obtains employment with an agricultural production facility by force, threat, or misrepresentation with the intent to cause economic or other injury to the facility's operations . . .

(d) Enters an agricultural production facility that is not open to the public and, without the facility owner's express consent or pursuant to judicial

process or statutory authorization, makes audio or video recordings of the conduct of an agricultural production facility's operations; or

(e) Intentionally causes physical damage or injury to the agricultural production facility's operations, livestock, crops, personnel, equipment, buildings or premises.

Chief Judge Winmill described the legislative history including statements that compared animal rights investigators to “marauding invaders centuries ago who swarmed into foreign territory and destroyed crops to starve foes into submission.”  However, for Winmill, there is a better comparison:

450px-The_Jungle_by_Upton_SinclairThe story of Upton Sinclair provides a clear illustration of how the First Amendment is implicated by the statute. Sinclair, in order to gather material for his novel, The Jungle, misrepresented his identity so he could get a job at a meat-packing plant in Chicago. William A. Bloodworth, Jr., UPTON SINCLAIR 45–48 (1977). Sinclair’s novel, a devastating exposé of the meat-packing industry that revealed the intolerable labor conditions and unsanitary working conditions in the Chicago stockyards in the early 20th century, “sparked an uproar” and led to the passage of the Federal Meat Inspection Act, as well as the Pure Food and Drug Act. National Meat Ass'n v. Harris, 132 S.Ct. 965 (2012). Today, however, Upton Sinclair’s conduct would expose him to criminal prosecution under § 18-7042.

On the First Amendment challenge, the judge found that Idaho's ag-gag statute is content based and merits strict scrutiny.  The opinion revisits an earlier ruling so concluding to reiterate that the United States Supreme Court's opinion in United States v. Alvarez ("the stolen valor case").  Judge Winmill notes that any deception involved in the ag-gag violation would be not be harmful: "the most likely harm that would stem from an undercover investigator using deception to gain access to an agricultural facility would arise, say, from the publication of a story about the facility, and not the misrepresentations made to gain access to the facility."  And "harm caused by the publication of true story is not the type of direct material harm that Alvarez contemplates."  The judge also held that the recording provision is content-based.

Moreover, Judge Winmill implicitly determines that the law is viewpoint-based:

a review of § 18-7042’s legislative history leads to the inevitable conclusion that the law’s primary purpose is to protect agricultural facility owners by, in effect, suppressing speech critical of animal-agriculture practices.

Not surprisingly, the statute does not survive strict scrutiny.  The judge is skeptical that the "property and privacy interests of agricultural production facilities" are sufficiently compelling given that food production is a heavily regulated industry.  Even if the interests were compelling, however, the statute was not narrowly tailored:

Criminal and civil laws already exist that adequately protect those interests without impinging on free-speech rights. It is already illegal to steal documents or to trespass on private property. In addition, laws against fraud and defamation already exist to protect against false statements made to injure or malign an agricultural production facility.

The judge thus concludes that the law restricts more speech than is necessary to achieve its goals.

On the Equal Protection Clause issue, the court's conclusion does not depend on a strict scrutiny analysis.  The judge finds that the ag-gag statute cannot satisfy even rational basis review.  First, Judge Winmill finds that that state's purported interest is not legitimate:

The State argues that agricultural production facilities deserve more protection because agriculture plays such a central role in Idaho’s economy and culture and because animal production facilities are more often targets of undercover investigations. The State’s logic is perverse—in essence the State says that (1) powerful industries deserve more government protection than smaller industries, and (2) the more attention and criticism an industry draws, the more the government should protect that industry from negative publicity or other harms. Protecting the private interests of a powerful industry, which produces the public’s food supply, against public scrutiny is not a legitimate government interest.

 Second, the judge finds that the actual interest is a “a bare congressional desire to harm a politically unpopular group" and thus  "cannot constitute a legitimate governmental interest if equal protection of the laws is to mean anything,” quoting and relying on U. S. Dept. of Agriculture v. Moreno (1973).  "As a result, a purpose to discriminate and silence animal welfare groups in an effort to protect a powerful industry cannot justify the passage" of the statute.

Judge Winmill's decision is ground-breaking.  So-called "ag-gag" laws have proliferated and are being challenged, usually on First Amendment grounds.  Undoubtedly the state will appeal and the Ninth Circuit will have a chance to decide whether  Judge Winmill was correct that the Idaho law is similar to the day labor solicitation prohibition in Arizona's SB1070 that the Ninth Circuit held unconstitutional in Valle Del Sol Inc. v.Whiting.

 UPDATE: Check out this analysis by ConLawProf Shaakirrah Sanders over at casetext and her pre-decision discussion about the case with Idaho Public Radio.

August 3, 2015 in Equal Protection, First Amendment, Food and Drink, Fourteenth Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Southern District Rebuffs Citizens United's Speech Claim

Judge Sidney Stein (SDNY) this week denied Citizens United's motion to preliminarily enjoin the New York Attorney General from enforcing his policy of requiring registered charities to disclose the names, addresses, and total contributions of their major donors.

The ruling, which follows a similar Ninth Circuit ruling this past spring, is a blow to the organization's efforts to keep their donors secret through the 501(c) form. But it does not mean that Citizen United's donors will be available to all of us: both the IRS and the state AG refuse to disclose the names of donors.

The case tests the AG's rule that charities registered in the state provide to the state AG their Schedule B to IRS Form 990. Schedule B includes names of persons who donate over $5,000 to a charity. Citizens United, a 501(c) organization, challenged the rule, arguing that it violated free speech, and due process, among other claims, and filed for a preliminary injunction.

Judge Stein rejected the motion, saying that Citizens United was unlikely to win on the merits. As to the free speech claim, Judge Stein wrote that the AG's rule bears a substantial relation to the sufficiently important government interest in enforcing charitable solicitation laws and protecting state residents from illegitimate charities, and that the strength of the state's interest justified the minimal burden on the organization. Judge Stein also concluded that the rule was not an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech, because the rule "sets forth 'narrow, objective, and definite standards' that cabin the Attorney General's exercise of discretion.'" Finally, Judge Stein rejected Citizens United's claim that the rule came without warning and thus violated due process, because in fact the rule did nothing new. (Judge Stein also rejected the non-constitutional claims.)

But while Judge Stein's ruling rejected Citizens United's motion to stop the state AG from enforcing the rule for now, nothing in the ruling compels the public release of the organization's major donors. Indeed, the ruling hinges on the fact that New York law and IRS regs both bar the public release of Schedule B. The ruling only allows the state AG to collect this information for the purpose of ferreting out charitable fraud and related crimes.

July 30, 2015 in Campaign Finance, Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Wisconsin Supremes End Walker Campaign Finance Investigation

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled this week that a special prosecutor's reading of Wisconsin's campaign finance rules in the investigation into illegal coordination between "independent" organizations and Governor Scott Walker's campaign violated the First Amendment. The ruling ends the investigation into the alleged coordination. It also opens the spigot for coordinated expenditures between outside organizations and campaigns on all but express advocacy for the election or defeat of a particular candidate.

The special prosecutor alleged that that the Walker campaign coordinated with outside organizations on issue advocacy in the recall elections related to Wisconsin Act 10, the bill that sharply curtailed public sector union rights in Wisconsin. In particular, the prosecutor alleged that the coordination was so extensive that the outside organizations became subcommittees of Walker's campaign under Wisconsin law, and that the outside organizations' coordinated issue advocacy amounted to a contribution to the Walker campaign--all in violation of Wisconsin law.

But all this turned on whether the advocacy was for "political purposes." Wisconsin law defines "political purposes" as an act

done for the purpose of influencing the election or nomination for election of any individual to state or local office, for the purpose of influencing the recall from or retention in office of an individual holding a state or local office, for the purpose of payment of expenses incurred as a result of a recount at an election, or for the purpose of influencing a particular vote at a referendum. . . .

(a) Acts which are done for "political purposes" include but are not limited to:

1. The making of a communication which expressly advocates the election, defeat, recall or retention of a clearly identified candidate or a particular vote at a referendum.

In short, the special prosecutor claimed that the coordination was for "political purposes," and therefore illegal.

The Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the definition of "political purposes" (and, in particular, the phrase "influencing [an] election") was unconstitutionally vague and overbroad, in that it potentially banned coordination on issue advocacy (and not just express advocacy for the election or defeat of a candidate). "The lack of clarity in [the definition], which the special prosecutor relies on, leads us to the unsettling conclusion that it is left to the government bureaucrats and/or individual prosecutors to determine how much coordination between campaign committees and independent groups is "too much" coordination." The court gave the definition a narrowing construction that limited the definition of "political purposes" to include only express advocacy for the election or defeat of a candidate (and not issue advocacy).

The opinion drew a sharp dissent, which argued that the ruling limited the state's campaign finance regulations beyond what the Supreme Court required and, in doing so, opened up a free-for-all on spending and coordination between "independent" groups and campaigns on issue advocacy.

According to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, no opinion of the United States Supreme Court or a federal court of appeals has established that the First Amendment forbids regulation of, or inquiry into, coordination between a candidate's campaign committee and issue advocacy groups. In repeatedly and single-mindedly declaring a rule that federal case law has declined to adopt, the majority opinion betrays its results-oriented, agenda-driven approach.

July 18, 2015 in Campaign Finance, First Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Anti-Masking Laws, the Ku Klux Klan, and the First Amendment


Reports that Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members are considering a rally in Columbia, South Carolina to support the controversial display of the confederate battle flag evokes images of hooded persons in traditional KKK garb.

However, South Carolina, like many states, has an anti-masking statute,  S.C. 16-7-110, which provides:

No person over sixteen years of age shall appear or enter upon any lane, walk, alley, street, road, public way or highway of this State or upon the public property of the State or of any municipality or county in this State while wearing a mask or other device which conceals his identity. Nor shall any such person demand entrance or admission to or enter upon the premises or into the enclosure or house of any other person while wearing a mask or device which conceals his identity. Nor shall any such person, while wearing a mask or device which conceals his identity, participate in any meeting or demonstration upon the private property of another unless he shall have first obtained the written permission of the owner and the occupant of such property.

As I've discussed in Dressing Constitutionally, such statutes, sometimes known as anti-KKK statutes, have been upheld against First Amendment challenges.

"Children with Dr. Samuel Green, Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon" 1948 via

For example, the similar Georgia statute, passed in 1951 and still in force, makes it a misdemeanor for any person who “wears a mask, hood, or device by which any portion of the face is so hidden, concealed, or covered as to conceal the identity of the wearer” and is either on public property or private property without permission.  In 1990, the Georgia Supreme Court in State v. Miller, 260 Ga. 669, 674, 398 S.E.2d 547, 552 (1990) upheld the statute against a First Amendment challenge by Shade Miller, who was arrested for appearing in KKK regalia alone near the courthouse in Gwinnet County, purportedly to protest the anti-mask statute itself.  In addressing Miller’s argument that the statute was overbroad, the court interpreted the statute narrowly, but not so narrowly as to exclude the KKK.  Instead, the court required the mask-wearer to have intent to conceal his identity and further that the statute would  “apply only to mask-wearing conduct when the mask-wearer knows or reasonably should know that the conduct provokes a reasonable apprehension of intimidation, threats or violence.”

New York's anti-masking statute, which was not originally prompted by KKK activities but by land revolts before the Civil War, was also upheld against a challenge by the KKK.  In 2004, the Second Circuit panel - - - including now United States Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor - - -decided Church of American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan v. Kerik, 356 F.3d 197, 201 (2d Cir. 2004).  The KKK group had sought an injunction against the statute to allow a demonstration while wearing masks. Rejecting the First Amendment claim, the court agreed that the KKK regalia - - - the robe, hood, and mask - - - met the threshold requirement for expressive speech, but nevertheless separated the mask in its analysis.  In the court’s view, the mask was “redundant” and did “not convey a message independently of the robe and hood.” Moreover, the court opined that mask-wearing was not integral to the expression, but optional even amongst KKK members.  Thus, while the KKK members had a First Amendment right to march, they did not have a First Amendment right to do so wearing their masks.

Should KKK members attempt to demonstrate while wearing their "regalia" that includes hoods that obscures their faces,  the South Carolina masking statute - - - and its constitutionality - - - are sure to be in play. 


July 1, 2015 in Association, Criminal Procedure, Current Affairs, Federalism, First Amendment, Fundamental Rights, History, Interpretation, Race, Reconstruction Era Amendments, Speech, Theory | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Sign Ordinance Violates First Amendment: Court Decides Reed v. Town of Gilbert

A unanimous Court, albeit with separate opinions, concluded that the extensive municipal signage regulations violated the First Amendment in Reed v. Town of Gilbert.

Recall from oral arguments that the town's regulations generally required a permit to erect a sign, with nineteen different exemptions including “Temporary Directional Signs Relating to Qualifying Event.”  The exemption for these temporary directional signs further specifies that such signs "shall be no greater than 6 feet in height and 6 square feet in area,”and “shall only be displayed up to 12 hours before, during and 1 hour after the qualifying event ends.” Although the challenge involves a church sign, this was largely irrelevant. Instead the content at issue is the sign’s directional nature, if indeed "directions" is a matter of content. In a divided opinion the Ninth Circuit upheld the town Gilbert signregulation as content neutral.

Reversing the Ninth Circuit, Justice Thomas, writing for the Court, concluded that the Sign Code was content-based and did not survive strict scrutiny.  The Sign Code provision is content-based because, simply put, to determine if a sign is a "Temporary Directional Sign" one must determine whether the sign "conveys the message of directing the public" to an event.  It does not matter, Thomas writes for the Court, that the content may seem neutral:

A law that is content based on its face is subject to strict scrutiny regardless of the government’s benign motive, content-neutral justification, or lack of “animus toward the ideas contained” in the regulated speech. *** In other words, an innocuous justification cannot transform a facially content- based law into one that is content neutral.

Once the Court decided there the regulation was subject to strict scrutiny, there was little doubt that the town would not be able to satisfy the standard.  Thomas assumed that the proffered governments interests of aesthetics and traffic safety were compelling, but quickly determined that that the manner in which they were being served was far from narrowly tailored. Instead, the regulations were "hopelessly underinclusive."

The concurring opinions take on the issue raised in oral argument about the constitutionality of any town's attempt to regulate signage.  Justice Kagan's concurring opinion, joined by Justice Ginsburg and by Breyer (who also has a separate concurring opinion) - - - but not by Justice Alito, who has his own brief concurrence, joined by Kennedy and Sotomayor (who also join the Thomas's opinion for the Court)- - - argues that strict scrutiny is not appropriate for all sign ordinances.  Kagan states:

Although the majority insists that applying strict scrutiny to all such ordinances is “essential” to protecting First Amendment freedoms,  I find it challenging to understand why that is so. This Court’s decisions articulate two important and related reasons for subjecting content-based speech regulations to the most exacting standard of review. The first is “to preserve an uninhibited marketplace of ideas in which truth will ultimately prevail.” McCullen v. Coakley. The second is to ensure that the government has not regulated speech “based on hostility—or favoritism— towards the underlying message expressed.” R. A. V. v. St. Paul (1992). Yet the subject-matter exemptions included in many sign ordinances do not implicate those concerns. Allowing residents, say, to install a light bulb over “name and address” signs but no others does not distort the marketplace of ideas. Nor does that different treatment give rise to an inference of impermissible government motive.

She instead argues that the "we may do well to relax our guard so that 'entirely reasonable' laws imperiled by strict scrutiny can survive."  But it was evident that even the concurring Justices  did not view the Town of Gilbert's signage regulations as entirely reasonable.

June 18, 2015 in First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

Court Decides Specialty License Plate is Government Speech in Sons of Confederate Veterans License Plate

In a closely - - - and interestingly - - - divided opinion today in Walker v. Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans, the Court's majority decided that Texas's specialty license plate program is government speech and therefore rejected the First Amendment challenge to the denial of a specialty license plate requested by the Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Justice Breyer delivered the Court's opinion, joined by four Justices, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Kagan, and - - - Thomas.  The dissenting opinion by Justice Alito was joined by Chief Justice Roberts, Scalia, and Kennedy.  And while Justice Breyer has become known for his appendices, this opinion has a simple one: the image of the rejected Sons of Confederate Veterans plate.  Meanwhile, Alito's dissenting opinion has a more extensive appendix; it includes the images of 58 specialty plates that Texas has approved.

No-pix-license-plate-021413As was evident in the oral arguments, and is frequently the case in First Amendment speech controversies, there was a definite choice of doctrine at stake.  Recall that the Fifth Circuit's divided opinion, reversing the district judge, found that the denial violated the First Amendment as impermissible viewpoint and content discrimination.  The Court today not only rejected that view, but it rejected the applicability of any forum analysis.  Instead, the Court applied the doctrine of government speech articulated in the Court's unanimous Pleasant Grove City v. Summum (2009) finding that there is no meaningful distinction between the privately placed monuments in Summum and the license plates in Texas.  This was raised at numerous points in the oral arguments and echoes the opinion of Judge Jerry Smith who had dissented in the Fifth Circuit's divided opinion.  Breyer did note that there were some aspects of Summum that were not exactly parallel, such as the permanence of the monuments in Summun, the opinion states that this was important because the public parks in Summun are traditional public forums, which is not the case for license plates.

And as for that other and most famous license plate case, Wooley v. Maynard (1977), the Court's majority opinion distinguished Walker because "compelled private speech is not at issue."  And indeed, if there is any compulsion of conveying ideological messages to be protected against here, it is that of the state being compelled to "include a Confederate battle flag on its specialty license plates."

Justice Alito's dissenting opinion has at its base a common-sense disagreement.  Noting the proliferation of specialty plates, supported by his Appendix, he asks:

As you sat there watching these plates speed by, would you really think that the sentiments reflected in these specialty plates are the views of the State of Texas and not those of the owners of the cars? If a car with a plate that says “Rather Be Golfing” passed by at 8:30 am on a Monday morning, would you think: “This is the official policy of the State—better to golf than to work?” If you did your viewing at the start of the college football season and you saw Texas plates with the names of the University of Texas’s out-of-state competitors in upcoming games— Notre Dame, Oklahoma State, the University of Oklahoma, Kansas State, Iowa State—would you assume that the State of Texas was officially (and perhaps treasonously) rooting for the Longhorns’ opponents? And when a car zipped by with a plate that reads “NASCAR – 24 Jeff Gordon,” would you think that Gordon (born in California, raised in Indiana, resides in North Carolina) is the official favorite of the State government?

Thus, he argues that what Texas has done by selling space on its license plates is to create a "limited public forum."

Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans could have wide-ranging effect. Does it give unfettered discretion to governments to decide license plate matters given that it is now government speech?  Consider that the Fourth Circuit recently held that North Carolina's provision of a "Choose Life" specialty license plate violated the First Amendment; that the New Hampshire Supreme Court invalidated a vanity license plate regulation requiring "good taste"; and that 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. 

Additionally, recent controversies about advertising on public transport, as in New York, the Sixth Circuit and Ninth Circuit,  could be reconceptualized after Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans.

June 18, 2015 in Courts and Judging, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (2)

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)

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)