Thursday, July 27, 2017
In a well reasoned opinion in Davison v. Loudon County Board of Supervisors, United States District Judge James Cacheris of the Eastern District of Virginia found that a politician who reacted to a constituent's comment on her "official" Facebook post by deleting his comment and banning him from her Facebook page violated the First Amendment.
Phyllis Randall, Chair of the Loudon County Board of Supervisors, maintained a Facebook page, entitled "Chair Phyllis J. Randall." She generally "uses the Facebook page to share information of interest with the County she serves," and Judge Cacheris provided several examples of the types of postings - - - precisely the type of postings one would expect - - - relating to proclamations such as "Loudon Small Business Week" and photographs of herself at conferences or other events.
As a threshold matter, Judge Cacheris determined that there was state action. This state action, however, could not be attributed to the defendant County Board of Supervisors, but only as to Phyllis Randall. Although the Facebook page was not the "property" of the county and would not revert to it when Randall left office, Randall "used it as a tool of governance." The judge found that Randall used the page to communicate with her constituents and the page reflects her efforts to "swathe" it with "the trappings of her office." Further, there were other government employees who assisted with the page. Moreover, the specific act of banning the constituent Davison arose out of public rather than private circumstances. Davison had apparently complained about the corruption of Randall's colleagues on the Board (the actual post, having been deleted by Randall, was not before the judge).
Judge Cacheris referenced two of the Supreme Court's decisions last Term - - - Packingham v. North Carolina opinion, noting that Facebook had become a vital platform for speech and the exchange of ideas, and Matal v. Tam, noting that if anything is clear, "it is that speech may not be disfavored by the government simply because it offends." The judge held that it was unnecessary to decide what type of "forum" under the First Amendment the Facebook page might be, given that under no forum is viewpoint discrimination permissible. Here, the judge held, Randall clearly banned Davison because of the opinion he expressed. There was no neutral policy (such as a ban on profanity) which was being neutrally applied.
The judge observed that Davison was banned only for a short time - - - Randall retracted her ban the next morning - - - and that during this time, Davison had adequate means to communicate his message through other avenues. Nevertheless, the judge stated that
Indeed, the suppression of critical commentary regarding elected officials is the quintessential form of viewpoint discrimination against which the First Amendment guards. By prohibiting Plaintiff from participating in her online forum because she took offense at his claim that her colleagues in the County government had acted unethically, Defendant committed a cardinal sin under the First Amendment.
The judge issued a declaratory judgment in favor of Davison, who represented himself pro se, on the First Amendment claim, although the judge rejected a procedural due process claim that Davison had also advanced.
This case should serve as a wake-up call for politicians who use their "official" Facebook pages in ways that may violate the First Amendment. The case may also be a harbinger of decisions to come in the ongoing litigation challenging the President's practice of "blocking" people on Twitter.
[image by Matt Shirk via]
Wednesday, July 12, 2017
In a careful and well-reasoned opinion in Animal Defense Fund v. Herbert, United States District Judge for Utah, Judge Robert J. Shelby, has concluded that Utah's so-called "ag-gag" statute, Utah Code §76-6-112, is unconstitutional as violating the First Amendment.
The Utah statute criminalized "agricultural operation interference" if a person:
(a) without consent from the owner of the agricultural operation, or the owner’s agent, knowingly or intentionally records an image of, or sound from, the agricultural operation by leaving a recording device on the agricultural operation;
(b) obtains access to an agricultural operation under false pretenses;
(c) (i) applies for employment at an agricultural operation with the intent to record an image of, or sound from, the agricultural operation;
(ii) knows, at the time that the person accepts employment at the agricultural operation, that the owner of the agricultural operation prohibits the employee from recording an image of, or sound from, the agricultural operation; and
(iii) while employed at, and while present on, the agricultural operation, records an image of, or sound from, the agricultural operation; or
(d) without consent from the owner of the operation or the owner’s agent, knowingly or intentionally records an image of, or sound from, an agricultural operation while the person is committing criminal trespass, as described in Section 76-6-206, on the agricultural operation.
The analysis separated these provisions into the lying provision - - - "false pretenses" under subsection (b) - - - and the recording provisions in the other subsections. As to both types, Utah argued that the First Amendment was not applicable.
Judge Shelby's analysis of First Amendment protection for the "lying provision" included a discussion of United States v. Alvarez (2012), the "stolen valor" case, settling on a reading of Alvarez that lies that cause "legally cognizable harm" could be outside the ambit of the First Amendment. Utah argued that the false pretenses caused two types of legally cognizable harm: danger to animals (and employees) and trespass. Judge Shelby dispatched the danger argument given that there was no connection between the lie and the danger: the "Act as written criminalizes lies that would cause no harm to animals or workers." Judge Shelby's analysis of the trespass rationale is more detailed, considering whether the misrepresentation negates consent so that the liar becomes a trespasser. For Judge Shelby, the answer is "not always." Relying on Fourth and Seventh Circuit pre-Alvarez cases, Judge Shelby essentially concludes that the Utah statute is overbroad:
It is certainly possible that a lie used to gain access to an agricultural facility could cause trespass-type harm; a protestor, for example, might pose as a prospective customer, and then, after being let in the door, begin causing a scene or damaging property. But the Act also sweeps in many more trivial, harmless lies that have no discernable effect on whether a person is granted access, and, consequently, on whether a person causes any trespass-type harm. Indeed, given its broad language (“obtain[ing] access to an agricultural operation under false pretenses”), the Act on its face criminalizes, for example, an applicant’s false statement during a job interview that he is a born-again Christian, that he is married with kids, that he is a fan of the local sports team. It criminalizes putting a local address on a resume when the applicant is actually applying from out of town. In short, the Act criminalizes a broad swath of lies that result in no harm at all, much less interference with ownership or possession of the facility . . . .
Judge Shelby also rejected Utah's argument that "recording" was not protected speech under the First Amendment, citing the Seventh Circuit police recording case recognizing a First Amendment protection (note a similar Third Circuit case in the past week).
Utah also argued that the First Amendment did not apply because the acts involved private property rights, although one of the plaintiffs had been charged while she was on public property filming. More importantly, however, Judge Shelby criticized Utah's argument as confusing a landowner's ability to exclude from her property someone who wishes to speak with the "government's ability to jail the person for that speech."
The applicability of the First Amendment proved to be the thorniest issue, with Judge Shelby then easily proceeding to find these were content-based provisions deserving of strict scrutiny and then easily finding that the Utah statute did not survive. Of special interest is Utah's reliance for its government interests on protecting animals and workers from injury, despite the legislative history that "appears devoid of any reference" to such interests, instead discussing harms caused by "the vegetarian people" and others. Judge Shelby found that the Utah statute was not necessary to serve these interests and was over- and under-inclusive:
Not only is the Act seemingly not necessary to remedy the State’s alleged harms, it is an entirely overinclusive means to address them. It targets, for example, the employee who lies on her job application but otherwise performs her job admirably, and it criminalizes the most diligent well-trained undercover employees. And it is simultaneously underinclusive because it does nothing to address the exact same allegedly harmful conduct when undertaken by anyone other than an undercover investigator.
While recognizing that Utah has an interest in addressing "perceived threats" to the state agricultural industry, Judge Shelby concluded that suppressing "broad swaths of protected speech" is not a constitutionally permissible tool to accomplish this goal. Thus, this opinion joins Idaho district Judge Winmill's 2015 decision in Animal Defense League v. Otter in a defeat for the so-called ag-gag laws.
[image "elk on farm" via]
Friday, July 7, 2017
In its opinion in Fields v. City of Philadelphia, the Third Circuit concluded that "Simply put, the First Amendment protects the act of photographing, filming, or otherwise recording police officers conducting their official duties in public." As the panel majority opinion by Judge Thomas Ambro noted, "Every Circuit Court of Appeals to address this issue (First, Fifth, Seventh, Ninth, and Eleventh) has held that there is a First Amendment right to record police activity in public"; the Third Circuit joined "this growing consensus."
The court noted that police recording has become "ubiquitous" and that such documentation has "both exposed police misconduct and exonerated officers from errant charges." In considering whether the recording was First Amendment expressive activity, the court noted that the case was "not about people attempting to create art with police as their subjects. It is about recording police officers performing their official duties." Thus, at stake is the First Amendment protection of the "public's right to know": "Access to information regarding public police activity is particularly important because it leads to citizen discourse on public issues, “the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values, and is entitled to special protection.”
Defendants offer nothing to justify their actions. Fields took a photograph across the street from where the police were breaking up a party. *** If a person’s recording interferes with police activity, that activity might not be protected. For instance, recording a police conversation with a confidential informant may interfere with an investigation and put a life at stake. But here there are no countervailing concerns.
Fields, using his iPhone, was noticed by an officer who then asked him whether he “like[d] taking pictures of grown men” and ordered him to leave. Fields refused, so the officer arrested him, confiscated his phone, and detained him. The officer searched Fields’ phone and opened several videos and other photos. The officer then released Fields and issued him a citation for “Obstructing Highway and Other Public Passages.” These charges were withdrawn when the officer did not appear at the court hearing.
Fields, along with Amanda Geraci who had been involved in a separate incident involving recording, brought 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims for retaliation for exercising their First Amendment rights. Thus, the court confronted the question of qualified immunity. The court held that at the time of the incident - - - 2013 for Fields - - - it was not sufficiently "clearly established" so that the law "gave fair warning so that every reasonable officer knew that, absent some sort of expressive intent, recording public police activity was constitutionally protected."
Dissenting in part, Judge Nygaard concluded that the right was clearly established. In addition to the "robust consensus" before the conduct at issue, the Philadelphia Police Department's own "official policies explicitly recognized this First Amendment right well before the incidents under review here took place." For Judge Nygaard, "no reasonable officer could have denied at the time of the incidents underlying these cases that efforts to prevent people from recording their activities infringed rights guaranteed by the First Amendment."
Certainly, after Fields v. City of Philadelphia, no reasonable officer could now successfully argue that there is not a First Amendment right to record police activity.
Monday, June 26, 2017
The United States Supreme Court, after a longer than usual period, granted certiorari in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, a case in which a cake-maker seeks the right to refuse to make a cake for a same-sex wedding, essentially asserting an exemption from Colorado's anti-discrimination law on the basis of the First Amendment's Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses.
Recall the Colorado ALJ firmly rejected the arguments of the cakeshop owners reasoning that to accept its position would be to "allow a business that served all races to nonetheless refuse to serve an interracial couple because of the business owner’s bias against interracial marriage." The ALJ rejected the contention that "preparing a wedding cake is necessarily a medium of expression amounting to protected 'speech,' " or that compelling the treatment of "same-sex and heterosexual couples equally is the equivalent of forcing" adherence to “an ideological point of view.” The ALJ continued that while there "is no doubt that decorating a wedding cake involves considerable skill and artistry," the "finished product does not necessarily qualify as 'speech.'" On the Free Exercise claim, the ALJ rejected the contention that it merited strict scrutiny, noting that the anti-discrimination statute was a neutral law of general applicability and thus should be evaluated under a rational basis test.
A Colorado appellate court affirmed in a 66 page opinion.
Interestingly, the Court in 2014 denied certiorari to a similar case, Elane Photography v. Willock, a decision from the New Mexico Supreme Court in favor of a same-sex couple against a wedding photographer.
The petitioner argues an intersection of doctrines including compelled speech and free exercise, arguing that the Colorado public accommodations non-discrimination law offers a "stark choice" to those who "earn a living through artistic means: Either use your talents to create expression that conflicts with your religious beliefs about marriage, or suffer punishment under Colorado’s public accommodation law."
Friday, June 23, 2017
In its en banc opinion in Retail Digital Network v. Prieto, the Ninth Circuit rejected a First Amendment challenge to a California prohibition of alcohol manufacturers and wholesalers from providing anything of value to retailers in exchange for advertising their alcohol products.
Plaintiff Retail Digital Network, RDN, installed and operated seven foot digital screen displays in liquor stores for the purpose of running advertisements for liquor products such as Moët Hennessy; the retail stores would would receive a portion of RDN's revenue. However, after originally participating in the advertising, Moët Hennessy withdrew, worried that the state would enforce California Business and Professions Code §25503(f)-(h) regarding such advertising arrangements.
The Ninth Circuit had upheld the provision more than thirty years ago in Actmedia, Inc. v. Stroh (1986), applying Central Hudson & Electric Corporation v. Public Service Commission of New York (1980). RDN argued, however, that Actmedia needed to be reconsidered, and contended that IMS v. Sorrell (2011) changed Central Hudson's commercial speech standard from "intermediate scrutiny" to "heightened scrutiny."
The en banc Ninth Circuit, with the exception of Chief Judge Sidney Thomas in a lone dissent, rejected the argument that Sorrell changed the commercial speech standard of Central Hudson. The court's opinion has an excellent rehearsal of the doctrinal relevance of Sorrell after Central Hudson, including arguments derived from Sorrell itself and a discussion of sister-circuit cases. In short, the court finds that Central Hudson "continues to set the standard for assessing restrictions on commercial speech."
Applying Central Hudson, the court does depart in one aspect from its previous application in the thirty-year old precedent of Actmedia. The court found that even assuming "promoting temperance" is a substantial government interest under Central Hudson, the state statute could not be said to "directly and substantially advance that interest" as required by Central Hudson.
However, the court agreed that the statute "directly and materially advances the State's interest in maintaining a triple-tiered market system" for wines and liquor and "because there is a sufficient fit between that interest and the legislative scheme." This "triple-tiered" distribution scheme was adopted by California after the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment to "prevent the resurgence of tied-houses." Tied-houses were retailers and saloons controlled by larger interests.
ConLawProfs looking for a good case to discuss commercial speech after Sorell might find RDN worth a look. As for whether the United States Supreme Court will take a look at RDN to clarify the commercial speech standard, RDN might also prove interesting.
Monday, June 19, 2017
In its opinion in Matal v. Tam, formerly Lee v. Tam, the United States Supreme Court has concluded that the disparagement provision in Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1052(a), barring the the Patent and Trademark Office from registering scandalous, immoral, or disparaging marks, was unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment. Recall that the underlying controversy involves the denial of trademark registration to a band called "The Slants" on the ground that the mark would be disparaging. Recall also that the en banc Federal Circuit held that the disparagement provision in Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1052(a), barring the the Patent and Trademark Office from registering scandalous, immoral, or disparaging marks, was unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment. The en banc majority found that the disparagement provision constituted viewpoint discrimination and failed strict scrutiny.
While all eight Justices participating in the decision agreed that the Federal Circuit should be affirmed, and all Justices agreed that the provision was subject to strict scrutiny as a viewpoint regulation, there was some disagreement regarding the applicability of other First Amendment doctrines as was apparent in oral argument.
Writing for the Court in most respects, Justice Alito's opinion concludes that the trademark disparagement provision applies to marks that disparage members of a racial or ethnic group (there was a statutory argument by Tam that this was not true) and is thus subject to the First Amendment. Justice Alito then proceeded to address three government arguments
- that the trademarks are government speech and thus not subject to the First Amendment;
- that trademarks are a form of government subsidy;
- that trademarks should be subject to a new "government program" doctrine.
As to the first discussion on government speech, all the Justices joined Alito's opinion. However, as to the second and third arguments made by the government, only Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Thomas and Breyer joined. In the concurring opinion by Justice Kennedy, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan, Kennedy writes that the "viewpoint discrimination rationale renders unnecessary any extended treatment of other questions."
The issue of whether First Amendment viewpoint discrimination doctrine applies to commercial speech has unanimous assent, with Alito's explanation for four Justices being a bit more extensive than Kennedy's explanation for four Justices, with the supplement of Thomas' additional concurrence to state that commercial speech should not be a separate First Amendment doctrine in cases content regulations.
The essence of the case is that the disparagement provision is viewpoint discrimination subject to strict scrutiny that it does not survive. For Justice Alito (in a plurality portion of the opinion), the matter is resolved thusly:
the disparagement clause is not “narrowly drawn” to drive out trademarks that support invidious discrimination. The clause reaches any trademark that disparages any person, group, or institution. It applies to trademarks like the following: “Down with racists,” “Down with sexists,” “Down with homophobes.” It is not an anti-discrimination clause; it is a happy-talk clause. In this way, it goes much further than is necessary to serve the interest asserted.
[emphasis in original]
From the perspective of the other four Justices, Kennedy phrases the problem a bit differently in addressing the government's arguments that the disparagement clause was not actually a viewpoint discrimination. Kennedy ends by stating
A law that can be directed against speech found offensive to some portion of the public can be turned against minority and dissenting views to the detriment of all. The First Amendment does not entrust that power to the government’s benevolence. Instead, our reliance must be on the substantial safeguards of free and open discussion in a democratic society.
Is this a distinction without a difference? Doctrinally, it makes little difference. But it does convey a difference in the mood of the Court.
Sunday, May 7, 2017
Comedian Stephen Colbert has drawn ire and FCC scrutiny for a joke in his monologue implying the President of the United States is in a specific sexual position vis-a-vis the President of Russia.
The remark, which occurred on "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" is within the so-called safe harbor provisions of the FCC regulation of indecent speech by "radio communication" (including traditional television such as CBS).
The constitutionality of such regulation was upheld by the Court in FCC v. Pacifica Foundation (1978), involving comedian George Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words" monologue, which had provoked complaints to the FCC by listeners. But Pacifica's continued viability seems questionable. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, concurring in FCC v. Fox Television Stations II (2012), which did not reach the First Amendment issues involving fleeting expletives, argued that Pacifica "was wrong when it issued," and further that time, technological advances, and FCC's "untenable rulings" show why Pacifica "bears reconsideration." Ginsberg cites the concurring opinion of Justice Thomas in the FCC v. Fox Television Stations I, decided three years earlier, in which Thomas highlights the "dramatic technological advances" that "have eviscerated the factual assumptions" underlying Pacifica: traditional broadcast media is no longer pervasive or even dominant.
Some might argue that the Colbert remark is “obscene” and that obscenity is categorically excluded from First Amendment protection. But to be obscene, speech must meet the classic test from Miller v. California (1973), requiring that the average person find the speech appeals to the prurient interest, describes in a patently offensive way sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law, and that the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. Here, Colbert’s comment would not likely to be found obscene. It does not appeal to the prurient interest, meaning some excessive or unhealthy interest in sex; it is not sexually arousing.
Perhaps more importantly, it would be very difficult to find that the Colbert monologue “taken as a whole” lacks serious “political value.” In Hustler Magazine v. Falwell (1988), based on a parody about evangelist Jerry Falwell implying that his first sexual experience was with his mother in an outhouse, Justice Rehnquist, wrote for the nearly unanimous Court about the importance of caustic humor for free political speech:
Despite their sometimes caustic nature, from the early cartoon portraying George Washington as an ass down to the present day, graphic depictions and satirical cartoons have played a prominent role in public and political debate. Nast's castigation of the Tweed Ring, Walt McDougall's characterization of Presidential candidate James G. Blaine's banquet with the millionaires at Delmonico's as "The Royal Feast of Belshazzar," and numerous other efforts have undoubtedly had an effect on the course and outcome of contemporaneous debate. Lincoln's tall, gangling posture, Teddy Roosevelt's glasses and teeth, and Franklin D. Roosevelt's jutting jaw and cigarette holder have been memorialized by political cartoons with an effect that could not have been obtained by the photographer or the portrait artist. From the viewpoint of history, it is clear that our political discourse would have been considerably poorer without them.
Colbert's remark, subject to critique as crude as well as homophobic, is nevertheless the type of political discourse protected by the First Amendment.
Here's the full clip, with the relevant passage starting at about 11:40, albeit with the offending language bleeped out as it was in the broadcast.
Friday, April 21, 2017
In its opinion in CTIA - The Wireless Ass'n v. City of Berkeley, a panel of the Ninth Circuit rejected First Amendment and preemption challenges to an ordinance requiring retailers to provide notices to consumers about their cell phone purchase. The notice, to be on a poster or handout, with the seal of the city, must read:
The City of Berkeley requires that you be provided the following notice:
To assure safety, the Federal Government requires that cell phones meet radiofrequency (RF) exposure guidelines. If you carry or use your phone in a pants or shirt pocket or tucked into a bra when the phone is ON and connected to a wireless network, you may exceed the federal guidelines for exposure to RF radiation. Refer to the instructions in your phone or user manual for information about how to use your phone safely.
As the notice implies, the FCC disclosures required to be included with the phone are similar if more extensive.
Affirming the district judge, the divided Ninth Circuit panel found that the required notice did not violate the First Amendment. As a compelled disclosure in a commercial context, the choice of standards was between the commercial speech test of Central Hudson Gas & Elec. Corp. v. Pub. Serv. Comm’n of New York (1980) or the more lenient test for disclosure of Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel of the Supreme Court of Ohio (1985). Writing for the majority, Judge William Fletcher found that the Zauderer test was appropriate, despite the fact that the disclosure did not involve "consumer deception." Judge Fletcher agreed with "sister circuits that under Zauderer the prevention of consumer deception is not the only governmental interest that may permissibly be furthered by compelled commercial speech," citing the D.C. Circuit's en banc opinion in American Meat Institute v. U.S. Department of Agriculture. Judge Fletcher's opinion reasoned that the Zauderer's language that the disclosure be “uncontroversial” should not be over-emphasized:
Given that the purpose of the compelled disclosure is to provide accurate factual information to the consumer, we agree that any compelled disclosure must be “purely factual.” However, “uncontroversial” in this context refers to the factual accuracy of the compelled disclosure, not to its subjective impact on the audience. This is clear from Zauderer itself.
Applying the deferential Zauderer standard, the court again confronted whether the disclosure was "purely factual" as well as being reasonably related to a substantial governmental interest. Judge Fletcher's opinion concluded the mandated notice was "literally true," based on FCC findings. The court rejected CTIA's argument that while it might be "literally true," the statement was "inflammatory and misleading." Judge Fletcher analyzed the compelled notice sentence by sentence, finding it true. For example, CTIA objected to the phrase “RF radiation,” but Judge Fletcher's opinion noted this is "precisely the phrase the FCC has used, beginning in 1996, to refer to radio-frequency emissions from cell phones," and that the city could not be faulted for using the technically correct term that the FCC itself uses.
It was on this point that the brief partial dissent by Judge Michelle Friedland differed. For Judge Friedland, consumers would not read the disclosure "sentences in isolation the way the majority does." She argues that taken as a whole,"the most natural reading of the disclosure warns that carrying a cell phone in one’s pocket is unsafe," and that "Berkeley has not attempted to argue, let alone to prove, that message is true." She accuses the city of "crying wolf" and advises the city if it "wants consumers to listen to its warnings, it should stay quiet until it is prepared to present evidence of a wolf."
In addition to the First Amendment claim, CTIA argued that the mandated disclosure was preempted by federal regulations. The court noted procedural problems regarding when the argument was advanced. Nevertheless, the court clearly concluded:
Berkeley’s compelled disclosure does no more than to alert consumers to the safety disclosures that the FCC requires, and to direct consumers to federally compelled instructions in their user manuals providing specific information about how to avoid excessive exposure. Far from conflicting with federal law and policy, the Berkeley ordinance complements and reinforces it.
But surely it is the First Amendment issues that are central to the case. The panel essentially divides on the limit to government mandated disclosures to consumers, an issue that vexed the DC Circuit not only in the American Meat Institute case mentioned above, but also in National Association of Manufacturers v. SEC (conflict minerals) and in R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. v. FDA (cigarette labeling), both of which held the labeling requirements violated the First Amendment. One measure of the importance of the issue is the attorneys who argued CTIA in the Ninth Circuit: Theodore Olsen for the trade association of CTIA and Lawrence Lessig for the City of Berkeley. The Ninth Circuit's majority opinion is careful and well-reasoned, but as the divided panel evinces, there are fundamental disputes about warning labels.
Friday, April 14, 2017
Judge John D. Bates (D.D.C.) ruled today that a student whose painting was displayed at the U.S. Capitol after winning an congressional art competition enjoyed no First Amendment right against the Architect of the Capitol when the Architect took the painting down based on its viewpoint.
Judge Bates said that the painting amounted to government speech, and that it was therefore not protected by the First Amendment.
The ruling is just the latest chapter in a dispute over the painting between a group of Republican lawmakers and law enforcement advocates, and the Congressional Black Caucus.
The case arose when high school student David Pulphus's painting was selected to represent Missouri's First Congressional District in the 2016 Congressional Art Competition. As a result, Pulphus's painting hung, along with other selected works, in the Cannon Tunnel in the U.S. Capitol complex. But this didn't sit well with some members of Congress, who saw the painting as anti-police. They took it upon themselves to remove the painting and deliver it to the office of Congressman William Clay, who represents the First District. After each removal, Clay, whose district includes Ferguson, then took it upon himself to return the painting to its place in the Cannon Tunnel.
Eventually the Architect removed the painting, but did not explain exactly why. Clay and Pulphus then sued, arguing that the removal constituted viewpoint discrimination in a designated public forum and therefore violated free speech.
Judge Bates disagreed. Applying three factors from Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans and Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, Judge Bates said (1) that the "traditional use of the medium" was "inconclusive," but (2) that "[t]he government, then, is understood by the public as speaking through that exercise of choosing which works are displayed in the art competition," and (3) that the Architect "retains editorial control over the art submitted in the competition." He concluded that Pulphus's piece therefore amounted to government speech (and not private speech in a limited public forum), and therefore enjoyed no First Amendment protection.
Judge Bates also rejected the plaintiffs' vagueness challenge, writing that "[w]hen the government speaks, it is free to promulgate vague guidelines and apply them arbitrarily."
Wednesday, April 5, 2017
The Third Circuit granted qualified immunity to local government officers against plaintiffs' First Amendment claims that the officers retaliated against them for exercising their speech and petition rights and directly violated their right to petition the government.
The ruling most likely ends this case.
The case arose when the Mirabellas, husband and wife who happen to be attorneys, got into a dispute with their neighbors over the neighbor's use of protected wetlands. The Mirabellas sought local government assistance in the dispute, but government officials sided with the neighbors. The Mirabellas then threatened to sue the neighbors and join the local government. So local government officials wrote to the Mirabellas that they were barred from communicating with the government or government officials (except the township attorney), and that government counsel should seek sanctions against the Mirabellas if they sued.
The Mirabellas did sue--but on First Amendment grounds, and not the underlying land-use dispute. They alleged that government officials retaliated against them for communicating with the government and directly violated their right to petition the government.
The Third Circuit ruled that the officials enjoyed qualified immunity and dismissed both claims. The court ruled that the officials did, in fact, retaliate against the Mirabellas for exercising their free speech and petition rights (based on the no-contact communication, but not on the communication threatening sanctions), but that the law wasn't clearly established at the time. In particular, the court said that "the right to be free from a retaliatory restriction on communication with one's government, when the plaintiff has threatened or engaged in litigation against the government" wasn't clearly established at the time.
The court similarly ruled that the officials violated the plaintiffs' right to petition the government, but that that right wasn't clearly established, either. The court said that "the right to be free from a restriction on communicating with one's government, when the plaintiff has threatened or engaged in litigation against the government" wasn't clearly established.
In defining the rights in this very specific way for purposes of the clearly-established prong of the qualified immunity test, the court said that Ashcroft v. al-Kidd prohibited it from "defin[ing] clearly established law at a high level of generality."
The court said that it wanted to address both prongs of the qualified immunity test--actual constitutional violation and clearly established--in order to provide some guidance on the actual contours of the rights at issue. (The court could have ruled the same way by addressing the clearly-established prong only, and punting on the actual constitutional violation prong.)
Sunday, April 2, 2017
In a Memorandum Opinion and Order, Judge David Hale ruled on a motion to dismiss the complaint in Nwanguma v. Trump which includes a count of incitement to riot by then-candidate Trump during a campaign event in Louisville, Kentucky on March 1, 2016. The complaint alleges that the candidate told the crowd “Get ’em out of here,” when the plaintiffs were "peacefully protesting" at a campaign rally. Allegedly as a result of the candidate's encouragement, three individual defendants pushed, shoved, and struck the three plaintiffs. The complaint contended that candidate Trump should be held vicariously liable for the tortious actions of the individual defendants; Judge Hale dismissed this count as not having sufficient allegations that the candidate (or his campaign) "had the right to control the other defendants’ actions." The complaint also contained a count regarding the candidate's negligence and failure to protect, which Judge Hale did not dismiss.
Most important from a constitutional standpoint, Judge Hale denied Trump's motion to dismiss the incitement to riot claim despite the defendant's argument that Trump's statement "Get ’em out of here” was protected by the First Amendment. As Judge Hale relates, under the landmark case of Brandenberg v. Ohio (1969), as well as the Sixth Circuit's en banc decision in Bible Believers v. Wayne County (2015), speech may not be “sanctioned as incitement to riot unless
(1) the speech explicitly or implicitly encouraged the use of violence or lawless action,
(2) the speaker intends that his speech will result in the use of violence or lawless action, and
(3) the imminent use of violence or lawless action is the likely result of his speech.”
Judge Hale analyzes each of these prongs in turn.
First, Judge Hale concludes that Trump's statement, “Get ’em out of here,” is phrased in the "imperative; it was an order, an instruction, a command." It is therefore unlike the protected speech in NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co. (1982) (“If we catch any of you going in any of them racist stores, we’re gonna break your damn neck.”); Hess v. Indiana (1973) (“We’ll take the fucking street again.”); or Watts v. United States (1969) (“If they ever make me carry a rifle the first man I want to get in my sights is L.B.J.”).
Second, Judge Hale concludes that the complaint states sufficient allegations of Trump's intent, although whether "he actually intended for violence to occur is beyond the scope of the Court’s inquiry at the motion-to-dismiss stage."
Third, Judge Hale rules that "the complaint adequately alleges that Trump’s statement was likely to result in violence—most obviously, by alleging that violence actually occurred as a result of the statement." Additionally, the complaint describes "a prior Trump rally at which a protestor was attacked."
The case is now on course to proceed.
Friday, March 31, 2017
The D.C. Circuit ruled today in the long-running Dhiab case that media intervenors had no First Amendment right to access redacted and videotapes classified as "secret" of force-feedings at Guantanamo Bay. The ruling overturns the district court order releasing the tapes after government redaction and ensures that the tapes won't be released (at least unless the full D.C. Circuit or Supreme Court reverses). We last posted on the case here.
The court rejected the internors' First Amendment claim under Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court. The court distinguished that case, holding that it dealt with sealed testimony and exhibits in a murder case (not classified national security information, as here) and that it was a criminal prosecution (and not a habeas corpus case, as here). As to the former difference, the court noted that national security information is traditionally well protected, citing the State Secrets Privilege from Reynolds and Totten, the closed hearings in Guantanamo habeas cases, and the classified-material exception in FOIA. As to the latter difference, the court reviewed the history and concluded that "[i]n habeas corpus cases, there is no tradition of public access comparable to that recounted in Press-Enterprise II with respect to criminal trials."
The court went on to say that even if the intervenors had a First Amendment right of access to the tapes, the government's interests in protecting national security justified withholding them. In particular, the court said that the government provided sufficient evidence that the tapes could threaten security at Guantanamo Bay, incite violence against American troops abroad, and serve as propaganda to recruit fighters.
Wednesday, March 29, 2017
In its opinion in Expressions Hair Design v. Schneiderman, a unanimous Court reversed the Second Circuit's conclusion that the First Amendment was not applicable to a New York statute prohibiting a credit card surcharge.
At issue is New York General Business Law § 518 prohibiting sellers from imposing a surcharge on customers who use credit cards. On the other hand, the statute allowed a "cash discount." United States District Judge Jed Rakoff had held that the New York statute regulated speech, limiting how merchants could express their differential pricing, and concluded that the statute failed the test for constitutional commercial speech under Central Hudson Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Service Commission (1980). The Second Circuit did not reach the Central Hudson analysis given its conclusion that there was no speech, commercial or otherwise, only conduct. The United States Supreme Court holds the statute regulates speech, at least as applied here.
The law tells merchants nothing about the amount they are allowed to collect from a cash or credit card payer. Sellers are free to charge $10 for cash and $9.70, $10, $10.30, or any other amount for credit. What the law does regulate is how sellers may communicate their prices. A merchant who wants to charge $10 for cash and $10.30 for credit may not convey that price any way he pleases. He is not free to say “$10,with a 3% credit card surcharge” or “$10, plus $0.30 for credit” because both of those displays identify a single sticker price—$10—that is less than the amount credit card users will be charged. Instead, if the merchant wishes to post a single sticker price, he must display $10.30 as his sticker price. Accordingly, while we agree with the Court of Appeals that §518 regulates a relationship between a sticker price and the price charged to credit card users, we cannot accept its conclusion that §518 is nothing more than a mine-run price regulation. In regulating the communication of prices rather than prices themselves, §518 regulates speech.
The Court did not proceed further, but remanded the case to the Second Circuit to assess 518's constitutionality, presumably under Central Hudson. However, in a footnote the Court made clear that there is a question as to whether 518 would prohibit a "two-sticker pricing scheme" such as the one that Hair Expression uses.
Justice Breyer's brief concurring opinion points out that the speech/conduct distinction may not be the wisest path, but instead the courts should consider how the challenged government action "affects an interest that the First Amendment protects." Here, Justice Breyer contends that 518 is unclear as to whether it is actually regulating disclosure (in which case the rational basis standard of Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel of Supreme Court of Ohio (1985) would apply) or whether it is more traditional commercial speech under Central Hudson.
This lack of clarity in the statute causes Justice Breyer to agree with the concurring opinion by Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Alito, that the interpretation of the statute should be certified to New York's highest court. Sotomayor's opinion criticizes the Second Circuit for not certifying the question previously, but for choosing a "convoluted course": it "rejected certification, abstained in part,' and decided the question in part," requiring a division in the petitioners' First Amendment challenge.
Sotomayor makes it clear that the "Court's opinion does not foreclose" the Second Circuit from choosing the certification route on remand. It remains to be seen what the Second Circuit will do, but it would probably be well-advised to avail itself of the certification process.
Monday, March 20, 2017
The Fourth Circuit today dismissed a fire department battalion chief's First Amendment retaliation claim for his Facebook activity in violation of the Department's Social Media and Code of Conduct policies. The court also dismissed his facial challenge against the policies as moot.
The case arose when Howard County (Maryland) Fire and Rescue Services Battalion Chief Kevin Patrick Buker posted a series of statements and "likes" on his Facebook page. On January 20, 2013, Buker posted this while on duty (sics omitted):
My aide had an outstanding idea . . lets all kill someone with a liberal . . . then maybe we can get them outlawed too! Think of the satisfaction of beating a liberal to death with another liberal . . . its almost poetic . . .
He then "liked" a colleague's post that added ugly racial comments to this.
The assistant chief directed Buker to remove the posts pursuant to the Department's Social Media Policy. That Policy, relatively new at the time, prohibited employees from posting anything that "might reasonably be interpreted as discriminatory, harassing, defamatory, racially or ethnically derogatory, or sexually violent when such statements, opinions or information, may place the Department in disrepute or negatively impact the ability of the Department in carrying out its mission."
Buker removed the posts, but then posted comments criticizing the Social Media Policy and the "liberals" who were behind it. The Department moved Buker out of field operations and into an administrative assignment and began an investigation.
About three weeks later, another colleague posted to his own Facebook page a picture of an elderly woman with her middle finger raised, with a caption saying that he'll post whatever he wants, and a note stating, "for you Chief." Buker "liked" it.
Shortly after that, Buker was fired for violating the Social Media Policy and the Code of Conduct. (The Code of Conduct banned "conduct unbecoming," that is, "any conduct that reflects poorly on an individual member, the Department, or County government, or that is detrimental to the public trust in the Department or that impairs the operation and efficiency of the Department.")
Buker sued, arguing that the Department fired him in retaliation for his speech, and that the Social Media Policy and Code of Conduct Policy were facially unconstitutional. The Fourth Circuit disagreed.
Applying Pickering, the court held that two of Buker's posts (the one about assaulting liberals, and the one criticizing the Social Media Policy) addressed matters of public concern. (The court assumed, without deciding, that Buker's Facebook activity constituted a "single expression of speech.") But the court said that the Department's interest in efficiency and preventing disruption outweighed Buker's interests:
- Buker's Facebook activity "interfered with an impaired Department operations and discipline as well as working relationships within the Department.
- The posts "significantly conflicted with [his] responsibilities as battalion chief," including "acting as an impartial decisionmaker and 'enforcing Departmental policies and taking appropriate action for violations of those policies.'"
- Buker's "speech frustrated the Department's public safety mission and threatened 'community trust' in the Department, which is 'vitally important' to its function."
- Buker's activity "expressly disrespect[ed] [his] superiors" after he had been reprimanded.
- The posts "disregarded and upset the chain of command."
The court dismissed Buker's facial challenge to the Social Media Guidelines and Code of Conduct as moot. The court said that although the Department changed the policies to eliminate the earlier version's prohibitions on the private use of social media, the Chief and defendants' counsel both promised the court that the Department wouldn't re-implement the old guidelines (so as to make this a "voluntary cessation" case).
Sunday, March 5, 2017
Reversing the district judge, the D.C. Circuit's opinion in United States v. Bronstein upheld the prohibition of certain speech in the United States Supreme Court against a challenge that it was unconstitutionally vague and thus violated the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause.
The statute, 40 U.S.C. § 6134, entitled “Firearms, fireworks, speeches, and objectionable language in the Supreme Court Building and grounds,” provides:
It is unlawful to discharge a firearm, firework or explosive, set fire to a combustible, make a harangue or oration, or utter loud, threatening, or abusive language in the Supreme Court Building or grounds.
The district judge had found that “harangues” and “orations” are terms that “cannot be determined without reference to subjective perceptions and individual sensitivities," and thus the statute was not sufficiently precise. The unanimous D.C. Circuit panel found that the statute's
core meaning is delivering speeches of various kinds to persons within the Supreme Court’s building and grounds, in a manner that threatens to disturb the operations and decorum of the Court. In the context of the Supreme Court’s building and grounds, the terms’ core meaning proscribes determinable conduct.
Moreover, the court found that "while “harangue” and “oration” may not roll off the average person’s tongue today," this "does not alter their possession of a settled meaning around public speeches." The general sense is "making a speech to a public assembly," and based on the title of the statute, the sense is clear that this pertains to "noises" intended to "disrupt the court's operations."
In its application, the opinion by Judge Janice Rogers Brown somewhat oddly includes a cinematic reference:
Turning to the facts here, a person of ordinary intelligence could read this law and understand that, as a member of the Supreme Court’s oral argument audience, making disruptive public speeches is clearly proscribed behavior—even in staccato bursts, seriatim. And yet, in a coordinated fashion, each Appellee is alleged to have directed a variation of the same message to the Justices of the Supreme Court and the assembled audience. Their coordinated standing, facing the bench, and messaging indicate the Appellees were addressing the Court and gallery. Cf. MY COUSIN VINNY (20th Century Fox 1992) (Judge Chamberlain Haller: “Don’t talk to me sitting in that chair! . . . When you’re addressing this court, you’ll rise and speak to me in a clear, intelligible voice.”). Viewed objectively, these alleged acts could easily be considered speeches to a public assembly that tended to disrupt the Court’s operations—conduct covered by § 6134’s prohibition of “make a harangue or oration.”
Earlier in the Bronstein opinion, joined by Judge Srinivasan and Senior Judge Williams, Judge Brown does provide more of the substance of the speeches which included objections to Citizens United and the legal construction of money as speech. Judge Brown notes that the protest occurred on "April Fools Day of 2015;" the protest group describes the timing as being on the eve of the one year anniversary of McCutcheon v. FEC. (There were no arguments on April 2, the actual anniversary, or the day after).
While a due process decision, Bronstein is consistent with judicial rejection of First Amendment challenges to statutes prohibiting expression in and around the United States Supreme Court. We've previously discussed the "special status" of the United States Supreme Court building, the Supreme Court's efforts to ensure its regulations were constitutional, as well as the D.C. Circuit's opinion in Hodge v. Talkin (2015) which upheld the constitutionality of statutory prohibitions of assembly and display of flags or signs on the United States Supreme Court plaza, and the arrest of a person for wearing a jacket with the word "Occupy" on it.
Monday, February 27, 2017
The Court heard oral argument in Packingham v. North Carolina in which the North Carolina Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a state statute, NCGS § 14-202.5, making it a felony for registered sex offenders to access certain commercial social networking sites. Packingham was convicted of a felony for his facebook page on which he wrote " Thank you Jesus. God is good" regarding a result on his parking ticket.
Justice Kagan distilled the importance of the issue in her questioning of the North Carolina Deputy Attorney General, Robert Montgomery:
JUSTICE KAGAN: So --so a --so a person in this situation, for example, cannot go onto the President's Twitter account to find out what the President is saying today?
JUSTICE KAGAN: Not only the President. I mean, we're sort of aware of it because the President now uses Twitter. But in fact, everybody uses Twitter. All 50 governors, all 100 senators, every member of the House has a Twitter account. So this has become a crucial --crucially important channel of political communication. And a person couldn't go onto those sites and find out what these members of our government are thinking or saying or doing; is that right?
Montgomery answered both queries in the affirmative, but suggested that Packingham could go onto the websites of government officials to learn their views.
The possibility of ample available alternatives, the question of narrow tailoring, and the overbreadth of the statute were the linchpins of the First Amendment argument, as David Goldberg representing Packingham explained when Justice Kennedy inquired about the "doctrinal choices" supporting an argument that the statute was unconstitutional. There were analogies to felon disenfranchisement and felons restricted Second Amendment rights, but Goldberg insisted that the First Amendment was different.
Prompted by this distinction based in part on originalist invocations, Chief Justice Roberts seemed to eschew originalism, given that the issue involves "access to websites and all the sort of things we're dealing with here." For his part, Justice Alito tried "to translate this into terms that would be familiar at the time of the adoption of the First Amendment," analogizing to a state law prohibiting anyone convicted of kidnapping children from visiting a nursery school. Goldberg first noted that the First Amendment did not apply to the states at the time of the Framers, but then stated that there was not a First Amendment right to visit a nursery school.
The notion that internet social sites are "virtual places" like playgrounds was one advanced by the state attorney, but one that the Justices did not seem to accept. Yet even if the virtual-spatial analogy was pertinent, the type of prophylactic rule upheld in Burson v. Freeman (1992) regarding a prohibition of campaigning within 100 feet of a polling place, seemed unpersuasive. Montogomery seemed to contend this was North Carolina's best case, to which Justice Kennedy replied that it "does not help you at - - - at all." The conversation continued:
JUSTICE KENNEDY: That was --number one, it was applied to everyone. It was 100 yards. You could have all the political speech in the world outside the --was it 100 yards or 100 feet, whatever it was. It seems to me that --do you have --do you have any better case than that?
MONTGOMERY: Well, the only --the reason -
JUSTICE KENNEDY: If you cite Burson, I think --I think you lose.
MONTGOMERY: The reason that that case is the one that I mentioned is because the rationale for that was that these kinds of crimes that happened in that zone often go undetected -
JUSTICE KAGAN: Mr. Montgomery, I agree with you. That's your closest case. It's the one that I asked Mr. Goldberg about, because it's the only case that I know of where we've permitted a prophylactic rule where we've said not all conduct will have these dangerous effects, but we don't exactly know how to separate out the dangerous --dangerous speech from the not-dangerous speech, so we're going to have a prophylactic rule. That is like one out of a zillion First Amendment cases that we've decided in our history.
And as Justice Kennedy says, there are many reasons to think it's distinguishable from this one.
MONTGOMERY: Well, the fact that it applied to all in Burson, I believe, makes our case a better case because it doesn't apply to all. It applies to sex offenders who have committed crimes, who have shown that they cannot conform to the law and are likely to be recidivists. So the fact that it's a narrower group is not --does not make it more problematic, but makes it --makes it better than Burson.
JUSTICE KENNEDY: Well, that was --that was not the rationale of Burson v. Freeman. Under that rationale, you --you could have said that it applies only to members of a political party and it would have been narrower. That would make it worse. The Petitioner here is saying you are singling me out and saying that I can't have the First Amendment rights that everybody else does. That's exactly the opposite of what was happening in Burson.
MONTGOMERY: But it wouldn't be like singling out a political party. These are people who have committed sex offenses. So, again, they have had certain disabilities already, civil disabilities. . . .
While making predictions of outcomes based on oral arguments is always fraught, the fact that Mr. Montgomery did not have a better "best case" than Burson to support the constitutionality of the North Carolina statute strongly suggests the case will be reversed.
Wednesday, February 22, 2017
In a brief Order in IMBD v. Becerra, federal district judge Vince Chhabria enjoined California AB 1687, added as §1798.83.5, stating that "it's difficult to imagine how AB 1687 could not violate the First Amendment."
The statute provides that a commercial online entertainment employment service provider, such as IMBD,
that enters into a contractual agreement to provide employment services to an individual for a subscription payment shall not, upon request by the subscriber, do either of the following:(1) Publish or make public the subscriber’s date of birth or age information in an online profile of the subscriber.(2) Share the subscriber’s date of birth or age information with any Internet Web sites for the purpose of publication.
To be sure, the government has identified a compelling goal – preventing age discrimination in Hollywood. But the government has not shown how AB 1687 is "necessary" to advance that goal. In fact, it's not clear how preventing one mere website from publishing age information could meaningfully combat discrimination at all. And even if restricting publication on this one website could confer some marginal antidiscrimination benefit, there are likely more direct, more effective, and less speech-restrictive ways of achieving the same end. For example, although the government asserts generically that age discrimination continues in Hollywood despite the long-time presence of antidiscrimination laws, the government fails to explain why more vigorous enforcement of those laws would not be at least as effective at combatting age discrimination as removing birthdates from a single website. Because the government has presented nothing to suggest that AB 1687 would actually combat age discrimination (much less that it's necessary to combat age discrimination), there is an exceedingly strong likelihood that IMDb will prevail in this lawsuit.
Friday, February 17, 2017
The Eleventh Circuit ruled yesterday that Florida's law banning doctors from asking patients about gun ownership violated the First Amendment. The en banc court struck three key provisions of Florida's law, but upheld a fourth, banning discrimination against gun owners.
Florida's Firearms Owners' Privacy Act bans doctors from asking about guns in patients' homes, from keeping records on patient gun ownership, from "unnecessarily" harassing patients about gun ownership, and from discriminating against patients based on gun ownership. The legislature enacted the provisions after hearing about six instances involving doctors asking patients about gun ownership or discriminating against patients because of gun ownership.
Doctors sued, arguing that the provisions violated free speech. The court agreed (again, except for the anti-discrimination provision).
The court held that FOPA was a content-based restriction on speech, subject to the heightened-review standard in Sorrell v. IMS, and that FOPA failed to stand up. (Because FOPA failed under heightened review, the majority said that it didn't need to consider whether strict scrutiny applied. Judges Wilson and Martin would have applied strict scrutiny, however, arguing that FOPA is both content- and viewpoint-based. Judge Tjoflat dissented, taking issue with the majority's failure "to elucidate and apply a particularized standard of review," especially in wake of the "uncertainty" created by Reed v. Town of Gilbert.) In a separate majority opinion, the court said that the anti-unnecessary harassment provision was unconstitutionally vague.
Florida proffered four interests: protecting Second Amendment rights; protecting patient privacy; ensuring equal access to health care; and regulating the medical profession to protect the public. The court said that FOPA's wasn't necessary to achieve any of these.
As to the Second Amendment, the court said that doctors can't violate it, because they're not state actors, and because the Second Amendment doesn't protect against questions on gun ownership:
The first problem is that there was no evidence whatsoever before the Florida Legislature that any doctors or medical professionals have taken away patients' firearms or otherwise infringed on patients' Second Amendment rights. This evidentiary void is not surprising because doctors and medical professionals, as private actors, do not have any authority (legal or otherwise) to restrict the ownership or possession of firearms by patients (or by anyone else for that matter). The Second Amendment right to own and possess firearms does not preclude questions about, commentary on, or criticism for the exercise of that right.
As to the state's interest in protecting patient privacy, the court noted that the FOPA itself, in a provision not contested in this case, protects a patient's right not to answer questions about gun ownership. "So any patients who have privacy concerns about information concerning their firearm ownership can simply refuse to answer questions on this topic." Moreover, "Florida law already places significant limits on the disclosure of a patient's confidential medical records, and there is no evidence that doctors or medical professionals have been improperly disclosing patients' information about firearm ownership."
As to ensuring equal access to health care, the court noted that it upheld FOPA's anti-discrimination provision, and that the other challenged provisions in FOPA simply weren't narrowly tailored to promote that interest.
Finally, as to the state's interest in regulating the medical profession "in order to protect the public," the court said that this just "is not enough here." "There is no claim, much less any evidence, that routine questions to patients about the ownership of firearms are medically inappropriate, ethically problematic, or practically ineffective. Nor is there any contention (or, again, any evidence) that blanket questioning on the topic of firearm ownership is leading to bad, unsound, or dangerous medical advice."
Judge Marcus, in a separate majority opinion, added that the anti-unnecessary-harassment provision was unconstitutionally vague.
The court upheld the anti-discrimination provision, because it raised no First Amendment concerns as applied to non-expressive conduct such as "failing to return messages, charging more for the same services, declining reasonable appointment times, not providing test results on a timely basis, or delaying treatment because a patient (or a parent of a patient) owns firearms."
The court severed the record-keeping, inquiry, and anti-harassment provisions, so that other provisions of the FOPA stay on the books. These include a provision relating to firearm inquiries by emergency medical professionals, a provision allowing patients to decline to answer questions about firearm ownership, the anti-discrimination provision, a provision prohibiting insurers from discriminating against gun owners, and a provision stating that a violation of any of these constitutes grounds for disciplinary action.
Thursday, February 16, 2017
In its unanimous opinion in State v. Arlene's Flowers, the Supreme Court of Washington upheld the Washington Law Against Discrimination including sexual orientation as applied to a business that refused to provide wedding flowers for a same-sex wedding.
The owner of Arlene's Flowers argued that the anti-discrimination statute was not applicable to her and if it did, it violated her constitutional rights of free speech, free exercise, and free association under the First Amendment as well as under the Washington state constitution.
On the First Amendment claims, the court found that Arlene's Flowers argument regarding compelled speech failed because the owner's flower arranging did not meet the threshold of expression. The court relied on Rumsfeld v. FAIR to hold that the owner's
decision to either provide or refuse to provide flowers for a wedding does not inherently express a message about that wedding. As [she] acknowledged at deposition, providing flowers for a wedding between Muslims would not necessarily constitute an endorsement of Islam, nor would providing flowers for an atheist couple endorse atheism. [She] also testified that she has previously declined wedding business on "[m]ajor holidays, when we don't have the staff or if they want particular flowers that we can't get in the time frame they need." Accordingly, an outside observer may be left to wonder whether a wedding was declined for one of at least three reasons: a religious objection, insufficient staff, or insufficient stock.
The court rejected the applicability of Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Group of Boston (1985), as well as a litany of other United States Supreme Court cases regarding this threshold of expression. In essence, the court emphasized that it was the sale of all flowers from her shop rather than any particular floral arrangement that was at issue in the case.
On the Free Exercise claim, the court rejected Arlene's Flowers' argument that the Washington ant-discrimination law was not a neutral one of general applicability and should therefore warrant strict scrutiny. Instead, the court applied the rational basis standard of Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, which the Washington anti-discrimination easily passed.
However, the analysis of free exercise under the Washington state constitution, article I §11 was not so simple because Washington has not always adopted the Smith standard when reviewing claims under its state constitution. Nevertheless, the court found that even subjecting the Washington anti-discrimination law to strict scrutiny, the statute survives. The court "emphatically" rejected the claim that there was no compelling interest of the state in flowers for weddings: the "case is no more about access to flowers than civil rights cases in the 1960s were about access to sandwiches."
Finally, the court rejected Arlene's Flowers' argument regarding free association, noting that all of the cases upon which she relied were not businesses. As to the business itself, the court also upheld a finding of personal liability of the owner, the person who had refused service.
The United States Supreme Court has denied petitions for writ of certiorari in similar cases, but it is highly likely that a petition for certiorari will follow, especially given the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Court.
February 16, 2017 in Family, Federalism, First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Fundamental Rights, Opinion Analysis, Religion, Sexual Orientation, Speech, State Constitutional Law | Permalink | Comments (0)
The Sixth Circuit ruled yesterday that a lower court should go ahead and rule on a First Amendment challenge to Tennessee's Campaign Finance Disclosure Act, and not wait for the outcome of a state administrative proceeding in a different case. The court also hinted toward a likely outcome: the Act violates the First Amendment.
The decision overturns the lower court's invocation of Pullman abstention and orders the lower court to move ahead to the merits. But the Sixth Circuit still gave the lower court a chance to certify interpretation of the state law to the Tennessee Supreme Court (but suggested that this wouldn't really help).
The case arose when two parents of school-aged children formed an unincorporated group to advocate in an upcoming school board election. The group planned to spend less than $250 on independent expenditures, and not make any direct campaign contributions to candidates.
But group members learned that Tennessee law might regulate their activities. The Tennessee Campaign Financial Disclosure Act defines a "political campaign committee" as "a combination of two (2) or more individuals, including any political part governing body, whether state or local, making expenditures, to support or oppose any candidate for public office or measure." The Act goes on to require committees to pay an annual registration fee, appoint a treasurer, maintain a separate bank account, file financial disclosure statements, and keep financial records--all things that the two members weren't prepared to do.
So they sued in federal court, arguing that the Act violated the First Amendment. But the district court punted, invoking Pullman abstention, and citing a pending state administrative proceeding involving the application of the Act to a different group.
The Sixth Circuit reversed. The court said that Pullman abstention wasn't appropriate here, because the state administrative proceeding dealt with different issues (and not the ones that the plaintiffs raised here), because the Act wasn't "so ambiguous as to necessitate abstention," and because the Act wasn't really susceptible to a limiting construction that would save it from a First Amendment challenge.
The court left open an option for the district court to certify a question on the construction of the Act to the Tennessee Supreme Court. But it also suggested that certification wouldn't do any good, because the Act says what it says.