Thursday, June 14, 2018
Friday, June 1, 2018
The Seventh Circuit this week rebuffed a First Amendment challenge to the phrase "In God we Trust" on our currency by a non-theistic Satanist. The unsurprising ruling allows the government to continue to print that phrase on money.
The plaintiff challenged the phrase under the Establishment Clause, the Free Exercise Clause, and the Speech Clause, among others. The court rejected each.
As to the Establishment Clause, the court said that the phrase wasn't an endorsement of religion, that it didn't coerce religious beliefs, and that it wasn't based on a forbidden religious purpose. In short, the court said that the phrase is simply a part of our nation's heritage:
The inclusion of the motto on currency is similar to other ways in which secular symbols give a nod to the nation's religious heritage. Examples include the phrase "one nation under God," which has been in the Pledge of Allegiance since 1954, as well as the National Day of Prayer, which has existed in various forms since the dawn of the country and is now codified [in the U.S.C.]. Moreover, when the religious aspects of an activity account for "only a fraction," the possibility that anyone could see it as an endorsement of religion is diluted. In the case of currency, the motto is one of many historical reminders; others include portraits of presidents, state symbols, monuments, notable events such as the Louisiana Purchase, and the national bird. In this context, a reasonable observer would not perceive the motto on currency as a religious endorsement.
As to free exercise, the court said that the plaintiff's "claim fails because the motto's placement on currency has the secular purpose of recognizing the religious component of our nation's history."
As to free speech, the court rejected the plaintiff's claim that the phrase amounted to forced speech, because nobody would regard the phrase as the plaintiff's own speech.
The court also rejected the plaintiff's RFRA claim (no substantial burden on the plaintiff's practice of Satanism) and his equal protection claim (because the government had at least one legitimate objective, "acknowledging an aspect of our nation's heritage").
Thursday, May 24, 2018
The Ninth Circuit yesterday upheld Montana's political committee reporting and disclosure requirements against First Amendment challenges by a group whose major purpose was not political advocacy. The ruling keeps these requirements on the books.
The case arose when the group Montanans for Community Development refrained from sending a pro-job-growth mailer that mentioned certain candidates in upcoming state elections, because it would have to comply with state political committee reporting and disclosure requirements. MCD sued, arguing that the requirements were unconstitutionally vague, that they were overbroad, and that they were unconstitutional as applied to MCD (as a group whose major purpose wasn't political advocacy).
The court, in a brief and unpublished opinion, rejected these claims. The court said that Montana law put a "person of ordinary intelligence [on] fair notice of what is prohibited" (and thus wasn't vague); that the requirements were substantially related to sufficiently important government interests of informing the electorate, deterring actual corruption and avoiding the appearance of corruption, and gathering data to enforce more substantive electioneering restrictions (and thus wasn't overbroad); and that "[p]olitical committee reporting and disclosure laws can extend beyond groups whose major purpose is political advocacy" (and thus survived MCD's as-applied challenge).
Wednesday, May 23, 2018
In her Opinion in Knight First Amendment Institute v. Trump, United States District Judge for the Southern District of New York, Naomi Reice Buchwald, found that the President's Twitter account, @realdonaldtrump, is in violation of the First Amendment when it blocks other Twitter users based on their political views.
Judge Buchwald's 75 page opinion is well-structured and well-reasoned, proceeding through the multiple and complex issues posed by the novel issue. The parties' extensive Stipulation formed the basis of the summary judgment order.
Judge Buchwald first found that the named plaintiffs and organizational plaintiff had standing as to both the President and Dan Scavino, the White House Social Media Director with access to the Twitter account. But she granted summary judgment in favor of Defendant Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who did not have access to the Twitter account (and Hope Hicks, no longer at the White House, was dismissed as a Defendant).
On the First Amendment issue, Judge Buchwald concluded that the Twitter account was governmental in nature as was the act of blocking other Twitter users. The judge rejected the argument that blocking was not state action because the blocking functionality was afforded every user: "but the power to exclude is also one afforded generally to every property owner. When a government acts to 'legally preserve the property under its control for the use to which it is dedicated,' it behaves 'like the private owner of property.'" She also rejected the argument that because the Twitter account was begun in 2009 it was not governmental now:
Here, the President and Scavino’s present use of the @realDonaldTrump account weighs far more heavily in the analysis than the origin of the account as the creation of private citizen Donald Trump. That latter fact cannot be given the dispositive weight that defendants would ascribe to it. Rather, because the President and Scavino use the @realDonaldTrump account for governmental functions, the control they exercise over it is accordingly governmental in nature.
Indeed, quoting from the parties' Stipulation, the Judge recounted:
With the assistance of Mr. Scavino in certain instances, President Trump uses @realDonaldTrump, often multiple times a day, to announce, describe, and defend his policies; to promote his Administration’s legislative agenda; to announce official decisions; to engage with foreign political leaders; to publicize state visits; to challenge media organizations whose coverage of his Administration he believes to be unfair; and for other statements, including on occasion statements unrelated to official government business. President Trump sometimes uses the account to announce matters related to official government business before those matters are announced to the public through other official channels.” Stip. ¶ 38. “For example, the President used @realDonaldTrump to announce on June 7, 2017, for the first time, that he intended to nominate Christopher Wray for the position of FBI director.” Stip. ¶ 38.
But the real issue for the forum analysis was not the President's tweets, which the Judge held to be "government speech" not subject to First Amendment constraints as the United States Supreme Court recently explained in Walker v. Texas Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Instead, the "interactive space associated with each of the President’s tweets is not government speech and is properly analyzed under the Supreme Court’s forum precedents," and, Judge Buchwald concluded, is a "designated public forum."
As such, the designated public forum is subject to the First Amendment requirement that any governmental restrictions must be "narrowly drawn to achieve a compelling state interest.”
Here, the individual plaintiffs were indisputably blocked as a result of viewpoint discrimination. The record establishes that “[s]hortly after the Individual Plaintiffs posted the tweets . . . in which they criticized the President or his policies, the President blocked each of the Individual Plaintiffs,” Stip. ¶ 53, and defendants do “not contest Plaintiffs’ allegation that the Individual Plaintiffs were blocked from the President’s Twitter account because the Individual Plaintiffs posted tweets that criticized the President or his policies.”
This viewpoint discrimination is impermissible, Judge Buchwald concluded, and not justified by any personal First Amendment right advanced by the President. Judge Buchwald distinguished "muting" and "blocking" on Twitter - - - which the President had argued were indistinguishable - - - and concluded:
The audience for a reply extends more broadly than the sender of the tweet being replied to, and blocking restricts the ability of a blocked user to speak to that audience. While the right to speak and the right to be heard may be functionally identical if the speech is directed at only one listener, they are not when there is more than one.
Finally, Judge Buchwald rejected the argument that the court categorically lacked authority to enjoin the President: "No government official, after all, possesses the discretion to act unconstitutionally." Nevertheless, she decided that a declaratory judgment should suffice: "we must assume that the President and Scavino will remedy the blocking we have held to be unconstitutional."
Monday, May 7, 2018
The Seventh Circuit ruled today that a retailer was not likely to succeed on its First Amendment challenge to Indianapolis's adult-store zoning regulations.
The case, HH-Indianapolis v. Indianapolis, arose when the plaintiff sought to open a retail establishment called "Hustler Hollywood" in Indianapolis. The corporation sought advice from city officials in order to avoid the "adult" designation under the city's changing zoning rules, and, in reliance on that advice, entered into a ten-year lease at a particular location. But when the corporation applied for a structural permit to remodel the property, the city determined that the retailer was either an adult bookstore or an adult service establishment--either way, not permitted in the zone where it was located (but permitted in other areas of the city, including a zone right across the street). The corporation declined to challenge the designation through the state courts and instead brought a First Amendment challenge in federal court.
The Seventh Circuit ruled that it was unlikely to succeed (and thus denied its motion for a preliminary injunction). The court said that the case fell squarely within the Supreme Court's "erogenous zoning" line: "There is simply 'no First Amendment objection' when the City exercises its zoning power to reduce the secondary effects of adult businesses, and HH has alternative avenues of communication."
The court said that the plaintiff's claim really amounted to a challenge to its designation as an "adult" retailer, and under state law belonged in state court.
Thursday, May 3, 2018
The Ninth Circuit this week denied rehearing en banc of a panel ruling upholding Montana's contribution limits against a First Amendment challenge. Through a forceful dissent and response-to-the-dissent, judges on the court wrangled over the right standard for contribution limits in the wake of Citizens United and McCutcheon v. FEC.
The long-running, up-and-down case, now Lair v. Motl, tests Montana's low contribution limits, designed to address the state's unique history with political corruption. A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit upheld the limits, and the full court voted to deny en banc review.
In dissent, Judge Ikuta, joined by Judges Callahan, Bea, M. Smith, and N.R. Smith, argued that the panel applied too lenient a standard. In particular, Judge Ikuta wrote that under McCutcheon and Citizens United, "the only state interest that justifies contribution limits is the prevention of acts that 'would be covered by bribery laws if a quid pro quo arrangement were proved.'"
In light of the Supreme Court's clarification, a state can justify imposing regulations limiting individuals' political speech (via limiting political contributions) only by producing evidence that it has a real problem in combating actual or apparent quid pro quo corruption. . . . [T]he government must provide evidence that 'the harms it recites are real and that its restriction will in fact alleviate them to a material degree.'" To meet this test here, a state must show that it has a realistic need to prevent acts that 'would be covered by bribery laws" by (for instance) presenting evidence that large monetary contributions were made "to control the exercise of an officeholder's official duties" or "point[ing] to record evidence or legislative findings suggesting any special corruption problem." One thing is certain: the state cannot carry its burden with evidence showing only that large contributions increase donors' influence or access.
Judges Fisher and Murguia responded, arguing that the dissent's test "has never been adopted by the Supreme Court or this court." "The evidentiary standard established by the Supreme Court requires that a state need only demonstrate a risk of quid pro quo corruption or its appearance that is neither conjectural nor illusory."
Monday, March 26, 2018
The Sixth Circuit ruled last week that Ohio's single-subject rule for ballot initiatives doesn't violate the First Amendment. The ruling upholds a state Ballot Board order requiring the plaintiffs to split their initiative--which includes one question on term limits for state supreme court justices and another to apply all laws "that apply to the people" of the state "equally to the members and employees of the General Assembly"--into two.
The case, Committee to Impose Term Limits v. Ohio Ballot Board, arose when the state Ballot Board rejected the plaintiffs' request to include a ballot question with two parts--one to impose term limits on Ohio supreme court justices, and the other to apply laws equally to members of the General Assembly. The Board ruled that state single-subject rule for ballot initiatives required the plaintiffs to split the questions. The plaintiffs sued, arguing that the Board's ruling violated the First Amendment.
The Sixth Circuit disagreed. The court rejected the plaintiffs' argument that the single-subject rule was a content-based restriction on speech and instead applied the Anderson-Burdick balancing test for "minimally burdensome and nondiscriminatory regulations." Under the balancing test, the court said that the single-subject rule amounted to only a minimal burden on the plaintiffs, but that it was justified by multiple state interests (avoiding confusion at the ballot box, promoting informed decision-making, preventing logrolling).
The ruling aligns with every other circuit that addressed the question post-Buckley v. Valeo.
Judge Amy Berman Jackson (D.D.C.) ruled on Friday that donors to a PAC don't have a First Amendment right against public disclosure of their identities as part of the FEC investigation file into their political contributions.
The ruling means that the FEC investigation file, including the contributors' identities, will be released, unless and until the ruling is appealed.
The case, John Doe 1 & John Doe 2 v. FEC, arose when the FEC launched an investigation into a series of transactions that landed Now or Never PAC with a $1.7 million contribution. The FEC's OGC learned that John Doe 2 sent about $1.7 million to Government Integrity; that Government Integrity wired about that amount to American Conservative Union; and that American Conservative Union, in turn, sent that amount on to Now or Never PAC.
The FEC's OGC recommended that the Commission find reason to believe that John Does 1 and 2 violated FECA's prohibition on "mak[ing] a contribution in the name of another person or knowingly permit[ting] his name to be used to effect such a contribution." The FEC rejected the recommendation, however, and sent the case to conciliation. Based on the results of conciliation, the FEC found that there was reason to believe that the plaintiffs, the PACs, and the treasurer of Now or Never violated FECA's prohibitions on making or receiving contributions in another person's name.
The FEC also advised that it would put the documents related to the case on the public record.
The John Does sued, arguing that this violated their First Amendment rights, among other things.
Judge Jackson disagreed. She noted initially that "plaintiffs do not make any claim that anyone's associational rights are being infringed, and disclosing the identities of plaintiffs here would not involve the disclosure of anyone's internal operations or political strategies." She also noted that the FEC recently revised its disclosure policy and tailored it "to minimize the burdens on constitutional rights while providing for sufficient disclosure to advancing legitimate concerns of deterring future violations and promoting Commission accountability."
She then wrote that "the constitutional issue has already been decided in the agency's favor." Quoting Citizens United,
The First Amendment protects political speech; and disclosure permits citizens and shareholders to react to the speech of corporate entities in a proper way. This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.
Judge Jackson went on to hold that the FEC's disclosure policy is reasonable (under the APA) and consistent with FOIA.
Check out Chris Schmidt's piece in the Washington Post earlier this month on student activism, from the lunch-counter sit-ins to gun control.
Prof. Schmidt also recently published The Sit-Ins: Protest and Legal Change in the Civil Rights Era with the University of Chicago Press.
Tuesday, March 13, 2018
A divided panel of the Eleventh Circuit ruled today that officers enjoyed qualified immunity against First and Fourth Amendment claims after arresting an Atlanta Ferguson protestor for wearing a "V for Vendetta" mask. The ruling ends the protestor's civil-rights action against the officers.
The case, Gates v. Khokhar, arose when officers arrested Austin Gates for wearing the mask during the Atlanta protest, and failing to take it off when so ordered by police. Officers charged Gates with a violation of Georgia's Anti-Mask statute, which, with certain exceptions not relevant here, makes it a misdemeanor for a person to "wear 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" while he is "upon any public way or public property." Gates sued, arguing that his arrest violated the First and Fourth Amendments.
The Eleventh Circuit ruled that the officers enjoyed qualified immunity and dismissed Gates's federal constitutional claims. The court said that the Georgia Supreme Court had narrowed the Anti-Mask statute to cases where (1) the mask is worn with the intent to conceal the identity of the wearer and (2) the wearer of the mask "knows or reasonably should know that [his] conduct provokes a reasonable apprehension of intimidation, threats, or violence."
Under this standard, the court said that the officers didn't violate any clearly established First or Fourth Amendment right. In particular, the majority held that under the circumstances the officers could have reasonably believed that Gates wore the mask to cover his entire face and with an intent to intimidate, and that they therefore had "arguable" probable cause for his arrest. (The court reminded us that "arguable" probable cause--the standard for qualified immunity from a Fourth Amendment claim--is a pretty low standard and doesn't require an officer to have specific evidence of intent. In any event, as to intent, the court said that the circumstances of the protest, the fact that officers previously ordered mask-wearers to remove masks on threat of arrest (even if Gates didn't hear this), and the symbolic threat behind the Guy Fawkes mask all suggested that an officer could infer intent to intimidate.)
Judge Williams dissented. She argued that the majority "fail[ed] to adequately address the First-Amendment implications of the conduct and statute at issue here." In particular, she wrote that "the specific right at issue here--whether individuals can be subject to arrest for wearing a mask during a peaceful protest--was "clearly established" at the time of Gates' arrest."
The panel unanimously held that the officers enjoyed absolute immunity against Gates's state-law claims.
Monday, March 12, 2018
The Tenth Circuit last week ruled that officers enjoyed qualified immunity against an open-carrying-plaintiff's claims that they detained him in violation of the Second Amendment and prevented him from recording their actions in violation of the First Amendment.
While the ruling goes only to qualified immunity, it underscores that there's no clearly established right to open carry under the Second Amendment, and no clearly established right of a detainee to record police officers in public. More generally, the ruling also illustrates just how stingy qualified immunity can be in protecting officers from constitutional tort claims.
The case, Sandberg v. Englewood, Colorado, arose when officers responded to a 911 call in which a caller reported "some form of workplace violence" after observing Westin Sandberg openly carrying his 9-millimeter Ruger on the streets of Englewood. The officers detained Sandberg and determined that there was no basis for the "workplace violence" allegation. But they continued to detain him--for four hours total--while they determined whether they could charge him with anything else. Finally, the officers wrote a summons for disorderly conduct. (Colorado's disorderly conduct statute says: "A person commits disorderly conduct if he or she intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly . . . displays a deadly weapon . . . .") They also took his gun, holster, bullets, and magazine. Four months later, the prosecutor dropped the charge, and, a month after that, returned Sandberg's property to him.
Sandberg sued, alleging violations of his First, Second, and Fourth Amendment rights, and gun-rights under the Colorado Constitution.
The Tenth Circuit rejected the federal constitutional claims, holding that the officers and prosecutor enjoyed qualified immunity. As to Sandberg's Second Amendment claim, the court said that there was no clearly established right to carry a gun in public. The court said that Justice Thomas's dissent to a denial of cert. in Peruta v. California and the Seventh Circuit ruling in Moore v. Madigan weren't enough, given that Justice Thomas's dissent carries no legal weight, and that the Seventh Circuit is the only circuit to hold that the Second Amendment encompasses a right to carry in public.
As to Sandberg's First Amendment claim, the court said that while some other circuits have held that the First Amendment protects the act of recording police officers' public conduct, they either post-dated the events in this case or involved a third-party recording the police (and not, as here, the detainee himself filming the police). Because there's no case-law on all fours, the court ruled that the law wasn't clearly established, and that the officers therefore enjoyed qualified immunity.
Lacking federal question jurisdiction, the court sent Sandberg's Colorado Constitutional claim back to the district court with instructions to dismiss.
While the case isn't (directly) a ruling on the merits, it does illustrate just how hard it can be to succeed on a constitutional tort claim against officers' qualified immunity. The qualified immunity doctrine allows courts to look first (and only) at whether a right is "clearly established" (without ever actually engaging the right itself). Moreover, in judging the "clearly established" question, the doctrine practically requires circuit precedent, or precedent from a majority of sister circuits, on all fours with the rights claim in the particular case. Because this is so hard to show--especially in cases involving relatively new rights claims, as here, which, because of their newness, simply haven't been litigated a lot--there's a weighty thumb on the scale in favor of qualified immunity, and against civil rights plaintiffs.
Wednesday, February 28, 2018
The Court heard oral argument in Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky, a First Amendment challenge to Minn. Stat. §211B.11, entitled "Soliciting near polling places," and includes among its petty misdemeanor violations a prohibition of political attire: "A political badge, political button, or other political insignia may not be worn at or about the polling place on primary or election day." The argument tracked many of the issues in our preview here.
Important to the argument was the relevance of Burson v. Freeman (1992), in which the Court upheld a Tennessee statute which prohibited the solicitation of votes and the display or distribution of campaign materials within 100 feet of the entrance to a polling place. Early in the argument, Justice Sotomayor asked J. David Breemer, counsel for the petitioners, whether he was asking the Court to overrule Burson. Breemer distinguished Burson as "active campaigning" speech while the Minnesota statute governing attire and buttons was directed at "passive speech," but this did not seem satisfactory to the Justices.
The slippery slope inherent in overbreadth challenges was traversed multiple times. How could the lines be drawn? Several Justices at different points pressed counsel for Minnesota Voters Alliance on whether the statute would be constitutional if narrowed to "electoral speech" (vote for candidate X), but while counsel eventually agreed this might be constitutional, Justice Sotomayor then asked about ballot measure issues. During Daniel Rogan's argument on behalf of the State of Minnesota, Justice Alito pressed with any number of examples after stating that political connotations are in the "eye of the beholder": rainbow flags, Parkland Strong, the text of the Second Amendment, the text of the First Amendment, and "I miss Bill." And what about the very notion of entitlement to vote itself? In Breemer's rebuttal, Justice Sotomayor returned to some of the facts that had prompted the First Amendment challenge:
Let's not forget who these people were and what they were wearing, "Please ID me," which for some people was a highly charged political message, which was found, on remand, was intended to intimidate people to leave the polling booth . . . .
For Alito, the focus was not on voters who may be intimidated but on the humiliation of a voter who might be forced to cover up a political shirt with "a bathrobe."
As for the government interests supporting the statute, the question of dignity and decorum were paramount, inviting the comparison to the courtroom, which Justice Kagan raised. Although Breemer stated there was no constitutional right to vote free from being bothered, C.J. Roberts asked why a state could not make a determination that there should be such a policy.
The on-the-ground enforcement of the statute, with a potential for viewpoint discrimination, was a focus of Justice Alito's questions, but other Justices were also interested in what actually happened at the polling place. For Alito,but Rogan stressed the process and repeatedly noted that for one hundred years the statute has not been a problem and that Minnesotans know not to wear political slogans to go vote. If there are issues, Rogan stated, they are rather expeditiously solved in a bipartisan process at the polling place.
While one can assume their positions from their questions in oral argument from a few Justices - - - Alito seemed rather obvious - - - it is always risky to venture a guess about the outcome, especially when there is a conflict of constitutional interests. Indeed, this case may be most like Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar in which a closely-divided Court in 2015 upheld an ethics rule prohibiting judicial candidates from solicitation; Chief Justice Roberts wrote the majority opinion.
Monday, February 26, 2018
There were no surprises today at oral arguments in Janus v. AFSCME, the case testing whether a state law that permits a public-sector collective-bargaining agreement to require non-union-members to pay a "fair share" fee violates the First Amendment. The justices seemed to divide along predictable (and conventional political) lines, given their votes in other recent cases. The only one we haven't heard from on this issue--and didn't hear anything today--is Justice Gorsuch. If previous positions hold, as expected, the case will turn on his vote.
The case asks whether a state can require non-union members to pay the union for its collective-bargaining work (but not its outside political work) in a public-sector agency shop. The Court held in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977) that it could. In particular, the Court said that the state's interests in avoiding free-riders in the agency shop and promoting and protecting labor peace justified any intrusion into First Amendment rights.
Janus tests whether the Court should overrule Abood and strike mandatory public-sector fair-share fees.
Recall that the issue has come to the Court, directly or indirectly, three times in recent years. In the first two cases, Knox v. SEIU and Harris v. Quinn, the Court sent strong signals that a majority thought fair share fees violated the First Amendment. Then, in 2016, the Court deadlocked 4-4 on the issue in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. Justice Scalia participated in oral arguments in Friedrichs--and indicated his position against fair share--but passed away before the Court issued its ruling.
Arguments today largely rehearsed the points made in Friedrichs and that have by now become familiar: on the one side, mandatory fair share represents compelled speech on public issues that a non-union-member (like Janus) may disagree with; on the other side, the interests in Abood justify any mild intrusion into First Amendment rights represented by a fee (and not actual compelled speech). Lurking just below the surface is the political wrangling over public-sector unions and the reality that a ruling against fair share will strike a serious blow to them.
If prior positions hold among the eight justices who participated in Friedrichs, as expected, the case will then turn on Justice Gorsuch. He revealed no cards today, though, staying quiet throughout the arguments.
On February 28, 2018, the United States Supreme Court will hear arguments in Minnesota Voters Alliance v. Mansky, a First Amendment challenge to Minn. Stat. §211B.11, entitled "Soliciting near polling places," and includes among its petty misdemeanor violations a prohibition of political attire: "A political badge, political button, or other political insignia may not be worn at or about the polling place on primary or election day."
The Eighth Circuit, in a brief opinion affirming the district judge's grant of summary judgment to the government defendants, upheld the statute against an as-applied First Amendment challenge.
The plaintiffs sought to wear Tea Party apparel and part of their argument was that the Tea Party was not a political party and that they had been subject to selective enforcement. The Eighth Circuit rather summarily rejected both of these arguments finding that they were not supported by the record. In a previous opinion, the Eighth Circuit had allowed plaintiffs to develop this record by reversing the district judge's initial dismissal of the complaint on the First Amendment as-applied claim, while affirming the dismissal of the First Amendment facial challenge and an equal protection challenge. One judge dissented on the First Amendment facial challenge claim. And it this facial challenge that is before the United States Supreme Court, the question presented by the petition for certiorari is: "Is Minnesota Statute Section 211B.11(1), which broadly bans all political apparel at the polling place, facially overbroad under the First Amendment?"
Undoubtedly the political attire at issue is expressive speech that the government could not ordinarily ban under the First Amendment. Thus, the status of the polling place on election day as an exception will be the centerpiece of the arguments. In Burson v. Freeman (1992), the Court upheld a Tennessee statute which prohibited the solicitation of votes and the display or distribution of campaign materials within 100 feet of the entrance to a polling place. The plurality opinion by Justice Blackmun applied strict scrutiny, finding that 100 feet parameter involved a public forum and that the speech was being regulated on the basis of its content. However, confronted with a "particularly difficult reconciliation" of rights: "the accommodation of the right to engage in political discourse with the right to vote - a right at the heart of our democracy," the plurality found that this was a "rare case" in which a statute survived strict scrutiny.
Here, the State, as recognized administrator of elections, has asserted that the exercise of free speech rights conflicts with another fundamental right, the right to cast a ballot in an election free from the taint of intimidation and fraud. A long history, a substantial consensus, and simple common sense show that some restricted zone around polling places is necessary to protect that fundamental right. Given the conflict between these two rights, we hold that requiring solicitors to stand 100 feet from the entrances to polling places does not constitute an unconstitutional compromise.
Concurring, Justice Scalia disagreed that the case involved a public forum: "Because restrictions on speech around polling places on election day are as venerable a part of the American tradition as the secret ballot," "exacting scrutiny" was inappropriate. Instead, Scalia contended that although the statute was content based, it was "constitutional because it is a reasonable, viewpoint-neutral regulation of a nonpublic forum."
In addition to this precedent, it will be difficult to ignore that the oral argument will be occurring at the United States Supreme Court with its specific instruction to visitors to the argument that "identification tags (other than military), display buttons and inappropriate clothing may not be worn." Additionally, two federal statutes, 40 U.S.C. §6135 and 40 U.S.C. 13k make it unlawful "to display therein any flag, banner, or device designed or adapted to bring into public notice any party, organization, or movement" in the Supreme Court building or grounds. The Court determined that the prohibition of political speech as applied to the surrounding sidewalk of the Supreme Court was unconstitutional in United States v. Grace (1983) (Mary Grace was displaying a placard with the First Amendment), but stopped far short of declaring the statute unconstitutional. Dissenting in part, Justice Marshall contended that the entire statute should be unconstitutional, noting that it “would be ironic indeed if an exception to the Constitution were to be recognized for the very institution that has the chief responsibility for protecting constitutional rights.”
But after some D.C. courts had upheld the statutes, a D.C. district judge declared U.S.C. §6135 unconstitutional in Hodge v. Talkin (2013), causing the Supreme Court to amend its regulations regarding the term "demonstration" to exclude "casual use by visitors or tourists that is not reasonably likely to attract a crowd or onlookers.," but to nevertheless continue to prohibit "all other like forms of conduct that involve the communication or expression of views or grievances." Nevertheless, a person arrested for wearing a jacket with the words "Occupy Everywhere" as a seemingly casual visitor to the Supreme Court building achieved little success in his attempt to vindicate himself. In other courtrooms, judges have banned spectators from wearing expressions related to the proceedings, for example in the trial of Bei Bei Shuai for ingesting poison to kill herself that harmed her fetus, and in the high-profile criminal trial of Cecily McMillan for assaulting a police officer who she alleged grabbed her breast. The United States Supreme Court obliquely confronted the issue of courtroom spectator in 2006 in Carey v. Musladin, which was decided on other procedural grounds. (For more discussion of spectator attire in courtrooms see Dressing Constitutionally).
The courtroom analogy will most likely surface at some point during the oral argument. In its brief, the Minnesota Voters Alliance relies on Justice Marshall's partial dissenting opinion in Grace, while Manksy's Respondent's brief ventures a specific analogy:
Because voting rights are of such bedrock importance, a polling place—like a courtroom—can reasonably be restricted to reflect the solemn and weighty nature of the function that occurs there.
But it will be interesting to hear how specific comparisons the United States Supreme Court's own practices in banning political t-shirts and similar attire will be. As for the attire of those attending the oral argument, if past practices hold, none of them will be wearing a Tea Party t-shirt or even a button expressing a political viewpoint.
Thursday, February 1, 2018
In his opinion in Hand v. Scott, United States District Judge for the Northern District of Florida Mark Walker declared Florida's re-enfranchisement scheme for persons convicted of felonies to be restored their right to vote unconstitutional under both the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause.
The court's decision was on cross motions for summary judgment and Judge Walker opens his opinion by describing the Florida scheme:
Florida strips the right to vote from every man and woman who commits a felony. To vote again, disenfranchised citizens must kowtow before a panel of high-level government officials over which Florida’s Governor has absolute veto authority. No standards guide the panel. Its members alone must be satisfied that these citizens deserve restoration. Until that moment (if it ever comes), these citizens cannot legally vote for presidents, governors, senators, representatives, mayors, or school-board members. These citizens are subject to the consequences of bills, actions, programs, and policies that their elected leaders enact and enforce. But these citizens cannot ever legally vote unless Florida’s Governor approves restoration of this fundamental right.
Florida’s Executive Clemency Board has, by rule, unfettered discretion in restoring voting rights. “We can do whatever we want,” the Governor said at one clemency hearing. One need not search long to find alarming illustrations of this scheme in action. In 2010, a white man, Steven Warner, cast an illegal ballot. Three years later, he sought the restoration of his voting rights. He went before the state’s Executive Clemency Board, where Governor Scott asked him about his illegal voting.
“Actually, I voted for you,” he said. The Governor laughed. “I probably shouldn’t respond to that.” A few seconds passed. The Governor then granted the former felon his voting rights.
While the state can deny persons convicted of a felony the right to vote under the Fourteenth Amendment as construed by the Court in Richardson v. Ramirez (1974), the issue before Judge Walker was whether the vote restoration process was constitutional. Seemingly, the state argued it had absolute discretion to restore voting rights. Judge Walker held that such discretion violated the First Amendment rights to free association and expression, and the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause.
On the First Amendment claim, Judge Walker first articulated the right of free political association and then the right to vote as including a First Amendment right, interestingly relying in part on Citizens United. Judge Walker writes that the unfettered discretion in vote restoration cannot survive exacting scrutiny. Even if the government interest in limiting the franchise to responsible persons is valid, "Florida does not use the least-restrictive means to pursue its interests in preventing possibly irresponsible citizens from choosing their leaders."
Florida’s vote-restoration scheme is crushingly restrictive. The scheme crumbles under strict scrutiny because it risks—if not covertly authorizes the practice of—arbitrary and discriminatory vote-restoration. When a scheme allows government officials to “do whatever [they] want,” viewpoint discrimination can slip through the cracks of a seemingly impartial process. [citing record] Such discrimination can lead to a denial of “the fruits of their association, to wit: [former felons’] political impact”—or widespread, insidious bias to benefit the Governor’s political party. Touchston, 234 F.3d at 1154 (Tjoflat, J., dissenting). State officials’ potential political, racial, or religious biases cannot poison the well of vote-restoration.
Judge Walker discussed several instances of possible discrimination and disparities, but ultimately concluded that it was the possibility of discrimination from unfettered discretion that was crucial. Additionally, the Governor as ultimate arbiter was fatal:
[t]he Governor has de facto veto authority over anyone’s restoration. All the component parts of the vote- restoration process that Defendants wave like shiny objects to distract from potential viewpoint discrimination—the investigations, case analyses, and hearings—mean nothing if the Governor alone has final authority to restore Plaintiffs’ rights.
Further, Judge Walker rejected the State's argument that the vote restoration scheme was akin to unreviewable executive clemency:
Executive clemency by its mere existence cannot serve as a legitimate, let alone compelling, state interest. No serious person would argue that an act of executive clemency that, for example, is motivated by race cannot run afoul of the Constitution simply because it is an act of executive clemency. This Court recognizes the novelty of a challenge to an executive clemency scheme. But “it is emphatically the province and duty of the judicial department to say what the law is.” Marbury v. Madison, 5 U.S. (1 Cranch) 137, 177 (1803). And so, if a court finds unconstitutionality in an executive clemency scheme, its role is to strike the acts permitting the constitutional violation—not to declare its hands tied.
On the Equal Protection Clause claim, Judge Walker essentially applied rational basis scrutiny and found that the "violation in this case—the substantial risk of arbitrary and discriminatory vote-restoration based on an applicant’s identity and perceived voting preferences from partisan government officials— is worse than a coin flip." Judge Walker stated that while the state may have a legitimate interest in limiting the franchise to responsible voters, the means chosen failed because it was at best, "arbitrary and disparate," interestingly quoting Bush v. Gore, on which the plaintiffs relied. Judge Walker added that at worst, the scheme would be discriminatory.
Judge Walker ordered additional briefings regarding remedies. Even if the state does not appeal, the question of remedies will be a difficult one.
Meanwhile, a ballot measure to restore voting rights to persons convicted of felonies has just been approved for the November ballot.
Tuesday, January 30, 2018
In his opinion in Koontz v. Watson, United States District Judge Daniel Crabtree enjoined Kansas officials from enforcing Kan. Stat. Ann. § 75- 3740 f and any other Kansas statute, law, policy, or practice that requires independent contractors to declare that they are not participating in a boycott of Israel. The Kansas statute is meant to counteract the so-called BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement which seeks to increase economic pressure on Israel as a means to accomplish specific goals.
After finding that the constitutional challenge was ripe, as well as not moot (since the state contended it would grant a waiver to the plaintiffs), Judge Crabtree found that plaintiffs were likely to prevail on their claim that the statute violated the First Amendment and a preliminary injunction was warranted. Judge Crabtree declared that under the First Amendment, states cannot retaliate or impose conditions on an independent contractor “ʻon a basis that infringes his constitutionally protected freedom of speech,'" and that the same guidelines developed under Pickering v. Board of Education of Township High School District 205, Will County, Illinois (1969) should apply.
On the first Pickering factor, Judge Crabtree found that Ms. Koontz's conduct of participating in a boycott was protected speech under NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co. (1982):
The conduct prohibited by the Kansas Law is protected for the same reason as the boycotters’ conduct in Claiborne was protected. Ms. Koontz, other members of the Mennonite Church, and others have “banded together” to express, collectively, their dissatisfaction with Israel and to influence governmental action. Namely, its organizers have banded together to express collectively their dissatisfaction with the injustice and violence they perceive, as experienced both by Palestinians and Israeli citizens. She and others participating in this boycott of Israel seek to amplify their voices to influence change, as did the boycotters in Claiborne.
In evaluating the government interest under Pickering, Judge Crabtree determined that the legislative history revealed that the goal was to "undermine the message of those participating in a boycott of Israel": "This is either viewpoint discrimination against the opinion that Israel mistreats Palestinians or subject matter discrimination on the topic of Israel." An additional possibility was the legislative goal to "minimize discomfort" of Israeli businesses. Judge Crabtree found these goals were not legitimate.
On the narrowly tailored prong, Judge Crabtree found that the means chosen would be both overinclusive and underinclusive to any legitimate goals such as those involving trade relations with Israel. Moreover,
The authority the Kansas Law grants the Secretary of Administration to waive the certification requirement also undermines any rationale offered by defendant. As the Supreme Court noted in City of Ladue v. Gilleo(1994), “Exemptions from an otherwise legitimate regulation of a medium of speech . . . may diminish the credibility of the government’s rationale for restricting speech in the first place.”
Judge Crabtree also distinguished Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic & Institutional Rights, (FAIR) Inc. (2006), on which the State relied, stating that the Kansas statute aims to regulate conduct that is "inherently expressive":
It is easy enough to associate plaintiff’s conduct with the message that the boycotters believe Israel should improve its treatment of Palestinians. And boycotts—like parades—have an expressive quality. Forcing plaintiff to disown her boycott is akin to forcing plaintiff to accommodate Kansas’s message of support for Israel. Because the Kansas Law regulates inherently expressive conduct and forces plaintiff to accommodate Kansas’s message, it is unlike the law at issue in Rumsfeld. The court thus finds defendant’s reliance on Rumsfeld misplaced.
After finding a likely First Amendment violation, Judge Crabtree further found the factors of granting a preliminary injunction were met.
Monday, January 22, 2018
The Tenth Circuit ruled last week that a former sheriff and undersheriff enjoyed qualified immunity against claims that they retaliated against employees for exercising free speech. The ruling means that the case is dismissed.
The case underscores the power of qualified immunity and the challenges that plaintiffs sometimes face in overcoming it, especially when circuit law hasn't addressed the plaintiffs' precise claims.
The case arose when former Sheriff Terry Maketa and Undersheriff Paula Presley took employment actions against employees for their speech in order to influence an upcoming election for sheriff. In particular, Maketa and Presley transferred plaintiff Lieutenant Peck to the midnight shift after Peck refused to deliver to the media a false story concocted by Maketa regarding a missing Internal Affairs document. They opened a criminal investigation against plaintiff Sergeant Stone and Stone's two children (who were also employees of the Sheriff's Office) after Stone expressed political support for the candidate opposed by Maketa and Presley. And they put a group of commanders on administrative leave; confiscated their phones, tablets, weapons, badges, and vehicles; and had them escorted out of the building after they lodged EEO complaints against Maketa and Presley.
The court didn't rule on the merits of the plaintiffs' free speech claims. Instead, it ruled that the defendants didn't violate any of the plaintiffs' clearly established rights under the Garcetti/Pickering test for public employee speech.
As to Peck, the court said that in communicating a message to the media against Maketa's orders, she wasn't clearly speaking as a private citizen (rather than a public employee), as required for a public employee's free speech claim. The court noted that "[i]n some circuits, Lt. Peck's disobedience might affect whether she was speaking as part of her official duties." But because the Tenth Circuit hadn't ruled on this yet, it wasn't clearly established.
As to Stone, the court said that the investigations didn't clearly constitute adverse employment actions as required for a public employee's retaliation claim. Again, the court noted that other circuits have ruled differently--that "[o]ther circuits disagree with one another on the issue" whether a retaliatory criminal investigation "entails a constitutional violation." But because the Tenth Circuit "has not settled the question," the right wasn't clearly established.
Finally, as to the commissioners, the court said that the defendants' actions weren't clearly adverse employment actions.
Thursday, January 4, 2018
In its opinion in Animal Defense League Fund v. Wadsen, a divided panel of the Ninth Circuit largely affirmed the injunction of Idaho's so-called "Ag-Gag" law, Idaho Code § 18-7042.
Recall that Chief Judge B. Lynn Winmill concluded that portions of the statute violated the First Amendment and enjoined them in 2015. The Idaho statute created a new crime, “interference with agricultural production" and provided that
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;
On appeal, the Ninth Circuit majority opinion, authored by Judge Margaret McKeown and joined by Judge Richard C. Tallman, affirmed the finding that subsections (a) and (d) violated the First Amendment, but held that subsections (b) and (c), criminalizing misrepresentations to obtain records and secure employment are not protected speech under the First Amendment and do not violate the Equal Protection Clause. In his partial dissent, Judge Carlos Bea argued that subsection (a), criminalizing misrepresentations to enter a production facility,should survive constitutional review.
What might be called the ethical center of the litigation is exemplified by the famous novel The Jungle (also discussed by the federal district judge) in which Upton Sinclair highlighted conditions in the meat-packing industry and which was based on the author's time working incognito in a packing plant. But the majority opinion also observes that the appeal "highlights the tension between journalists’ claimed First Amendment right to engage in undercover investigations and the state’s effort to protect privacy and property rights in the agricultural industry."
But the doctrinal center of the court's analysis of the Idaho statute criminalizing misrepresentation is the United States Supreme Court's fractured opinion in United States v. Alvarez (2012), holding unconstitutional the federal "stolen valor" statute criminalizing falsely claiming to have been awarded a military medal.
In short, the majority found that subsection (a)'s misrepresentation provision was protected speech under Alvarez subject to exacting scrutiny, which it did not survive, especially given the potential for selective prosecution and its overbreadth. On the other hand, subsection (b) pertaining to obtaining records was not protected speech under Alvarez because unlike subsection (a)'s "false statements made to enter property, false statements made to actually acquire agricultural production facility records inflict a property harm upon the owner, and may also bestow a material gain on the acquirer" and the provision is aimed at conduct. Somewhat similarly, subsection (c)'s criminalization of obtaining employment is not protected speech under Alvarez since the statements were made for material gain. The majority interestingly observed that it was almost as if "the Idaho legislature drafted this provision with Alvarez by its side," but interestingly did not observe that this provision would have criminalized Upton Sinclair as he researched his novel. Finally, subsection (d), the recordings clause, was not within the false statements analysis of Alvarez, but was a content-based prohibition that failed strict scrutiny.
With the proliferation of ag-gag laws, this Ninth Circuit opinion is sure to be relied on by the Tenth Circuit as it considers a district court 2017 decision in Animal Defense Fund v. Herbert holding Utah's ag-gag law unconstitutional under the First Amendment.
[Images from NYPL public domain collection]
Wednesday, December 20, 2017
The Sixth Circuit ruled this week that the DOJ's and FBI's designation of a group as a "gang" wasn't a final agency action, and therefore the group couldn't challenge the designation as violating the First Amendment under the Administrative Procedure Act.
The case arose when the FBI's National Gang Intelligence Center designated Juggalos, fans of the musical group Insane Clown Posse, as a gang. Juggalos display distinctive tattoos, art, clothing, symbols, and insignia that demonstrate their affiliation with Insane Clown Posse, and associate with each other in order to share their support of the group. According to the NGIC Report, "many Juggalo subsets exhibit gang-like behavior and engage in criminal activity and violence."
Juggalos brought an APA claim against the DOJ and FBI, arguing that the gang designation violated their First and Fifth Amendment rights, because other law enforcement officers (including state and local officers) used the NGIC Report to target them.
The Sixth Circuit dismissed the case. The court said that the designation didn't cause law enforcement officers to target Juggalos; instead, officers voluntarily relied on the NGIC and used it for their own enforcement purposes. Therefore, the designation didn't cause any legal consequences to Juggalos, and it wasn't a final agency action under the APA.
The court noted, however, that its ruling didn't foreclose First Amendment suits against local law enforcement officers under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983.
Wednesday, December 13, 2017
The Third Circuit ruled that school board officials are entitled to qualified immunity from a First Amendment claim by a disruptive speaker who the board excluded from future meetings. But the court also ruled that immunity did not extend to the school board itself.
The ruling sends the case back to the district court for further proceedings on municipal liability.
The case, Barna v. Board of School Directors of the Panther Valley School District, arose when the school board excluded speaker Barna from future meetings because he had made threatening and disruptive comments at earlier meetings. After giving Barna a second chance, which he blew, the board's attorney sent Barna a letter barring him from attending all board meetings or school extracurricular activities because his conduct had become "intolerable, threatening and obnoxious" and because he was "interfering with the function of the School Board." The board permitted Barna to submit written questions, however.
Barna sued individual board officials and the board itself for violating his free speech. The district court granted qualified immunity to all defendants and dismissed the case.
The Third Circuit partially reversed. As to the individual board officials, the court said that Barna's right to free speech wasn't clearly established at the time, because Barna cited no Supreme Court authority saying otherwise, and because Fourth Circuit precedent went against him:
We therefore conclude that, given the state of the law at the time of the Board's ban, there was, at best, disagreement in the Courts of Appeals as to the existence of a clearly established right to participate in school board meetings despite engaging in a pattern of threatening and disruptive behavior. Even if a "right can be 'clearly established' by circuit precedent . . . there does not appear to be any such consensus--much less the robust consensus--that we require to deem the right Barna asserts here as clearly established.
While the court didn't rule on the merits--it didn't have to in order to grant qualified immunity, because it concluded that a right to free speech wasn't clearly established at the time--it noted that it had "twice upheld the temporary removal of a disruptive participant from a limited public forum like a school board meeting." The difference in this case: Barna's ban was permanent.
As to the board, the court reversed. The court noted that under Owen v. City of Independence municipalities do not enjoy qualified immunity from suit for damages under Section 1983. The court sent the issue back to the district court for determination whether the action was a pattern or practice under Monell and, if so, a determination on the merits.