Saturday, April 20, 2019
The Fifth Circuit ruled earlier this week that a sheriff office's official Facebook page was a public forum; that the office's posting rules were based on the viewpoint of the poster, in violation of the First Amendment; and that the rules constituted official county policy. The ruling reverses a lower court's denial of a preliminary injunction and remands the case for further proceedings. (That is, the case is still at a preliminary stage, though the ruling answers many of the legal questions.)
The case, Robinson v. Hunt County, Texas, tested the Hunt County Sheriff's Office Facebook page. According to the page, "We welcome your input and POSITIVE comments regarding the Hunt County Sheriff's Office." Moreover, "We encourage you to submit comments, but please note that this is NOT a public forum." On January 18, 2017, the HCSO Facebook account posted this message:
We find it suspicious that the day after a North Texas Police Office is murdered we have received several anti-police calls in the office as well as people trying to degrade or insult police officers on this page. ANY post filled with foul language, hate speech of all types and comments that are considered inappropriate will be removed and the user banned. There are a lot of families on this page and it is for everyone[,] and therefore we monitor it extremely closely. Thank you for your understanding.
Robinson and others posted on the page criticizing the policy as a violation of the First Amendment. Robinson's post was removed, and she was banned from the page. She sued individual officers and the county and moved for a preliminary injunction. The district court denied the injunction and later dismissed the case for failure to state a claim.
The Fifth Circuit reversed as to the county. (Robinson didn't appeal as to the individual officers.) The court held that she sufficiently pleaded a constitutional violation, because the defendants' actions constituted viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment. The court said that the Facebook page was a public forum, and it didn't matter which kind (designated or limited), because either way viewpoint-based discrimination was impermissible. The court held that the policy constituted official policy (for purposes of Robinson's Section 1983 claim against the county), because Robinson "has plausibly alleged that Hunt County had an explicit policy of viewpoint discrimination on the HCSO Facebook page," through the sheriff's official control of the page.
The court sent the case back for further proceedings.
Wednesday, April 17, 2019
The Fourth Circuit ruled today that a Rastafarian prisoner in North Carolina couldn't show that prison officials denied his religious-exercise rights when they rejected his request to celebrate Rastafarian holy days through communal feasts and gatherings.
The case, Wright v. Lassiter, arose when a Rastafarian prisoner asked for communal feasts as part of his religious practice. When officials declined, he sued, arguing that officials violated his free-exercise rights under RLUIPA and the Free Exercise Clause.
But according to the court there was one problem: The plaintiff was the only Rastafarian, and the only prisoner who would attend the communal feasts and gatherings, in the prison. This meant that the officials didn't cause or impose a substantial burden on his religious exercise (the trigger for both RLUIPA and free exercise claims); instead, the absence of any other Rastafarian did:
Wright's causation problem stems from the fact that he has requested communal gatherings and feasts. There is no such thing as a community of one, and Wright agreed at oral argument tha the was not seeking a feast for himself alone. He therefore had to show that, but for the policies that allegedly prohibit the requested holiday gatherings, other inmates would join in the gatherings. To put it in the negative, if other inmates would not join in his gatherings, then the prison's restrictive policies would not be a factual cause of the burden he claims to have experienced.
Absent causation, the court said, it didn't even need to evaluate under strict scrutiny (under RLUIPA) or rational basis review (under the Free Exercise Clause).
Monday, April 15, 2019
The United States Supreme Court hear oral arguments in Iancu v. Brunetti, a First Amendment facial challenge to Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1052(a), which prohibits the Patent and Trademark Office from registering “immoral” or “scandalous” trademarks.
Recall that Brunetti's apparel line, named "fuct," was denied a trademark and a divided Federal Circuit Court panel held the provision unconstitutional. Recall also that the United States Supreme Court in Matal v. Tam (2017) held that the disparagement provision in Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1052(a) violated the First Amendment, but despite the unanimous conclusion there were fractured rationales.
Indeed, whether or not Tam resolved the issue in Brunetti was a centerpiece of the oral argument, with Justice Sotomayor essentially asking the Deputy Solicitor General, Malcolm Stewart, to distinguish Tam within the first few minutes. Moreover, some of the unresolved issues in Tam — including the actual role of trademark registration, how trademark registration differs from direct prohibition, whether there could be any content (or viewpoint) basis on which to deny a trademark, and how the trademark program differs from other programs such as municipal advertising or government grants — reappeared in the Brunetti argument.
The Justices seemed troubled by any argument that the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) could reject a trademark on the basis that a majority or "substantial segment" of people might find it objectionable, especially given changing morals and issues about which segments of the population (as Justice Ginsburg asked, would this include a composite of 20 year olds).
Justice Breyer was particularly interested in whether the PTO could reject racist trademarks. For Breyer, certain racial slurs are "stored in a different place in the brain. It leads to retention of the word. There are lots of physiological effect with very few words." While Malcolm Stewart stated that he thought racial slurs were taken off the table by Tam, in his rebuttal he stated that " with respect to the single-most offensive racial slur, the PTO is currently holding in abeyance applications that incorporate that word" pending the possibility that the present decision could leave open the possibility that that word might be viewed as scandalous.
While many of the other hypotheticals involved profanity, obscenity, or "dirty words" (FCC v. Pacifica), Justice Breyer's concern will surely be addressed by at least one opinion when the decision is rendered in Brunetti.
Tuesday, April 9, 2019
The Brooklyn Law Review will host a symposium titled Incitement at 100--and 50--and Today: Free Speech and Violence in the Modern World on Friday, April 12, at Brooklyn Law School. Very impressive line up. RSVP at the link by April 10.
Thursday, March 21, 2019
In an Executive Order today, President Trump sought to promote free inquiry and regulate student loans in higher education.
The text of the E.O. is not yet available from government sources, but as reported by the Washington Post, the E.O. provides:
IMPROVING FREE INQUIRY, TRANSPARENCY, AND ACCOUNTABILITY AT COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES
By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, it is hereby ordered as follows:
Section 1. Purpose. The purpose of this order is to enhance the quality of postsecondary education by making it more affordable, more transparent, and more accountable. Institutions of higher education (institutions) should be accountable both for student outcomes and for student life on campus.
In particular, my Administration seeks to promote free and open debate on college and university campuses. Free inquiry is an essential feature of our Nation's democracy, and it promotes learning, scientific discovery, and economic prosperity. We must encourage institutions to appropriately account for this bedrock principle in their administration of student life and to avoid creating environments that stifle competing perspectives, thereby potentially impeding beneficial research and undermining learning.
The financial burden of higher education on students and their families is also a national problem that needs immediate attention. Over the past 30 years, college tuition and fees have grown at more than twice the rate of the Consumer Price Index. Rising student loan debt, coupled with low repayment rates, threatens the financial health of both individuals and families as well as of Federal student loan programs. In addition, too many programs of study fail to prepare students for success in today's job market.
The Federal Government can take meaningful steps to address these problems. Selecting an institution and course of study are important decisions for prospective students and significantly affect long-term earnings. Institutions should be transparent about the average earnings and loan repayment rates of former students who received Federal student aid. Additionally, the Federal Government should make this information readily accessible to the public and to prospective students and their families, in particular.
This order will promote greater access to critical information regarding the prices and outcomes of postsecondary education, thereby furthering the goals of the National Council for the American Worker established by Executive Order 13845 of July 19, 2018 (Establishing the President's National Council for the American Worker). Increased information disclosure will help ensure that individuals make educational choices suited to their needs, interests, and circumstances. Access to this information will also increase institutional accountability and encourage institutions to take into account likely future earnings when establishing the cost of their educational programs.
Sec. 2. Policy. It is the policy of the Federal Government to:
(a) encourage institutions to foster environments that promote open, intellectually engaging, and diverse debate, including through compliance with the First Amendment for public institutions and compliance with stated institutional policies regarding freedom of speech for private institutions;
(b) help students (including workers seeking additional training) and their families understand, through better data and career counseling, that not all institutions, degrees, or fields of study provide similar returns on their investment, and consider that their educational decisions should account for the opportunity cost of enrolling in a program;
(c) align the incentives of institutions with those of students and taxpayers to ensure that institutions share the financial risk associated with Federal student loan programs;
(d) help borrowers avoid defaulting on their Federal student loans by educating them about risks, repayment obligations, and repayment options; and
(e) supplement efforts by States and institutions by disseminating information to assist students in completing their degrees faster and at lower cost.
Sec. 3. Improving Free Inquiry on Campus. (a) To advance the policy described in subsection 2(a) of this Order, the heads of covered agencies shall, in coordination with the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, take appropriate steps, in a manner consistent with applicable law, including the First Amendment, to ensure institutions that receive Federal research or education grants promote free inquiry, including through compliance with all applicable Federal laws, regulations, and policies.
(b) "Covered agencies" for purposes of this section are the Departments of Defense, the Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Labor, Health and Human Services, Transportation, Energy, and Education; the Environmental Protection Agency; the National Science Foundation; and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
(c) "Federal research or education grants" for purposes of this section include all funding provided by a covered agency directly to an institution but do not include funding associated with Federal student aid programs that cover tuition, fees, or stipends.
Sec. 4. Improving Transparency and Accountability on Campus. (a) To advance the policy described in subsections 2(b)-(e) of this order, the Secretary of Education (Secretary) shall, to the extent consistent with applicable law:
(i) make available, by January 1, 2020, through the Office of Federal Student Aid, a secure and confidential website and mobile application that informs Federal student loan borrowers of how much they owe, how much their monthly payment will be when they enter repayment, available repayment options, how long each repayment option will take, and how to enroll in the repayment option that best serves their needs;
(ii) expand and update annually the College Scorecard, or any successor, with the following program-level data for each certificate, degree, graduate, and professional program, for former students who received Federal student aid:
(A) estimated median earnings;
(B) median Stafford loan debt;
(C) median Graduate PLUS loan debt (if applicable);
(D) median Parent PLUS loan debt; and
(E) student loan default rate and repayment rate; and
(iii) expand and update annually the College Scorecard, or any successor, with the following institution-level data, providing the aggregate for all certificate, degree, graduate, and professional programs, for former students who received Federal student aid:
(A) student loan default rate and repayment rate;
(B) Graduate PLUS default rate and repayment rate; and
(C) Parent PLUS default rate and repayment rate.
(b) For the purpose of implementing subsection (a)(ii) of this section, the Secretary of the Treasury shall, upon the request of the Secretary, provide in a timely manner appropriate statistical studies and compilations regarding program-level earnings, consistent with section 6108(b) of title 26, United States Code, other applicable laws, and available data regarding programs attended by former students who received Federal student aid.
Sec. 5. Reporting Requirements. (a) By January 1, 2020, the Secretary, in consultation with the Secretary of the Treasury, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and the Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, shall submit to the President, through the Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy and the Assistant to the President for Economic Policy, a report identifying and analyzing policy options for sharing the risk associated with Federal student loan debt among the Federal Government, institutions, and other entities.
(b) By January 1, 2020, the Secretary, in consultation with the Secretary of the Treasury, shall submit to the President, through the Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy and the Assistant to the President for Economic Policy, policy recommendations for reforming the collections process for Federal student loans in default.
(c) Beginning July 1, 2019, the Secretary shall provide an annual update on the Secretary's progress in implementing the policies set forth in subsections 2(b)-(e) of this order to the National Council for the American Worker at meetings of the Council.
(d) Within 1 year of the date of this order, the Secretary shall compile information about successful State and institutional efforts to promote students' timely and affordable completion of a postsecondary program of study. Based on that information, the Secretary shall publish a compilation of research results that addresses:
(i) how some States and institutions have better facilitated successful transfer of credits and degree completion by transfer students;
(ii) how States and institutions can increase access to dual enrollment programs; and
(iii) other strategies for increasing student success, especially among students at high risk of not completing a postsecondary program of study.
Sec. 6. General Provisions. (a) Nothing in this order shall be construed to impair or otherwise affect:
(i) the authority granted by law to an executive department or agency, or the head thereof; or
(ii) the functions of the Director of the Office of Management and Budget relating to budgetary, administrative, or legislative proposals.
(b) This order shall be implemented consistent with applicable law and subject to the availability of appropriations.
(c) This order is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.
While there is no definition of "free inquiry," the E.O. delegates authority to administrative agencies to develop regulations.
Friday, March 15, 2019
In his opinion in Cockrum v. Donald J. Trump for President, Inc., Senior United States District Judge Henry Hudson of the Eastern District of Virginia dismissed the complaint by two contributors and a staffer of the democratic National Committee against the Trump Campaign. The plaintiffs alleged that their personal information was "illegally obtained Russian intelligence operatives during the Russian hack of computer servers" belonging to the DNC, and then in a conspiracy with the Campaign and with WikiLeaks, emails with their personal information was released.
Judge Hudson's 35 page opinion first considered whether the plaintiffs claims were barred by the First Amendment as the Campaign argued, relying on Bartnicki v. Vopper (2001). Under Bartnicki, if a person lawfully obtains truthful information about a matter of public concern, the publication cannot be constitutionally punished. Judge Hudson distinguished Bartinicki because the complaint alleged that the information was not obtained legally but through a conspiracy with the Kremlin and WikiLeaks. Additionally, the private facts disclosed by the emails did not themselves have a public concern. Judge Hudson therefore concluded that, taking the allegations of the complaint as true, at this point the Campaign had no First Amendment protection.
However, Judge Hudson also ruled that the complaint failed to state a claim for relief in any of its counts.
For Count I, a claim that the Campaign violated 42 U.S.C. §1985(3), first enacted in 1871 and known as the Ku Klux Klan Act, Judge Hudson found that it was insufficient to allege that there was a "conspiracy to intimidate lawful voters from giving support or advocacy to electors for President and to injure citizens in person or property on account of such support or advocacy." The statute, Judge Hudson ruled, is remedial only and there must therefore be an allegation of a violation of a pre-existing constitutional right. This right, Judge Hudson ruled, could only be a First Amendment right, which would therefore require state action. The complaint did not contain sufficient allegations of state action, but instead stated that the Trump Campaign was a Virginia corporation. "Taking this fact to its logical conclusion, the Campaign is incapable of state action because it is a private entity," Judge Hudson wrote. Interestingly, this would similarly vitiate any action against the Ku Klux Klan as the Act originally intended to address.
Counts II-IV sounded in tort, three for the tort of public disclosure or private facts and one for intentional infliction of emotional distress. On the state tort claims involving publication of private facts, Judge Hudson provided a detailed lex loci analysis to determine the "place of the wrong" and thus which state law should apply, an important point because many states do not recognize the tort of private disclosure of public facts. Ultimately, the court determined that the act of publication could not be determined and thus the law of the forum state should apply; but given that Virginia did not recognize a common law right to privacy, there was no claim stated. As to the claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress, Judge Hudson found that the allegations did not rise to the level of extreme and outrageous required by the tort. The court dismissed the state tort law claims without prejudice.
The dismissal is a final order and it will be interesting to see if the plaintiffs appeal, especially on the §1985 claim.
Thursday, March 14, 2019
In its opinion in Zervos v. Trump, the Appellate Division, First Department of the New York State courts held that the lawsuit for defamation could proceed against the President while he is in office.
Recall that in March 2018, the New York state trial judge ruled the lawsuit for defamation by Summer Zervos against now-President Trump could proceed, denying a motion to dismiss or to stay by Trump based on his presidential status. The trial judge decided that the holding of the United States Supreme Court in its unanimous 1997 decision of Clinton v. Jones that then-President Clinton was subject to suit in federal court extended to state court. Recall also that soon thereafter, the appellate division in New York denied President Trump's motion for a stay, in a summary decision, and likewise soon thereafter, the New York Court of Appeals (NY's highest court) dismissed the appeal by Trump on the ground that the order appealed from does not finally determine the action.
In today's divided decision, the appellate division reached the merits of the trial judge's opinion with the majority affirming the decision regarding the President's amenability to suit, and all five judges agreeing that there was a claim for defamation.
Writing for the majority of three judges, Judge Dianne Renwick concluded that the Supremacy Clause, Article VI, does not bar a state court from exercising jurisdiction. She rejected Trump's argument that because he is the "ultimate repository of the Executive Branch's powers and is required by the Constitution to always be in function" as being without support in the constitutional text or case law and conflicting with the fundamental principle that the United States is a "government of laws and not of men." After a detailed discussion of Clinton v. Jones, she stated that in short, the decision "clearly and unequivocably demonstrates that the Presidency and the President are indeed separable." She continued that "aside from the forum, plaintiff's case is materially indistinguishable from Clinton v. Jones," and noted that Congress had not acted to afford the President more protection, interestingly citing and quoting an article by the most recent Supreme Court Justice, Brett Kavanaugh.
The difference between the majority and the dissent is centered on footnote 13 of Clinton v. Jones:
Because the Supremacy Clause makes federal law "the supreme Law of the Land," Art. VI, cl. 2, any direct control by a state court over the President, who has principal responsibility to ensure that those laws are "faithfully executed," Art. II, § 3, may implicate concerns that are quite different from the interbranch separation-of-powers questions addressed here. Cf., e.g., Hancock v. Train, 426 U.S. 167, 178—179 (1976); Mayo v. United States, 319 U.S. 441, 445 (1943). See L. Tribe, American Constitutional Law 513 (2d ed.1988) ("[A]bsent explicit congressional consent no state may command federal officials ... to take action in derogation of their ... federal responsibilities")."
But as the majority opinion explains,
the cases cited in the footnote above suggest only that the Supreme Court was concerned with a state's exercise of control over the President in a way that would interfere with his execution of federal law (Hancock, 426 US at 167 [holding that the State of Kentucky could not force federal facilities in the State to obtain state permits to operate]; Mayo, 319 US at 441 [holding that a Florida state official could not order the cessation of a federal fertilizer distribution program]; but see Alabama v King & Boozer, 314 US 1  [holding that the State of Alabama could charge a tax on lumber that a federal government contractor purchased within the state for construction of an army base, where the federal government would ultimately pay the tax]).
The difference between the majority and dissent centers on the possibility that a state court could hold the President in contempt. For the majority, this is a "hypothetical concern" that is not presently before the court, noting also that contempt is unusual in all circumstances and state courts would be aware of the issue. For the dissent, on the other hand, although there is no reason to believe the President Defendant "would not cooperate in the litigation, there is no way to be absolutely certain that the court would not at some point have to take steps to protect its own legitimacy;" the contempt power would be a "sword of Damocles hanging over the President's head."
All judges agreed that Zervos stated a claim for defamation, rejecting Trump's claim that the statements were mere hyperbole and not pertaining to the plaintiff. Instead, he was clearly including Zervos in statements and his "flat-out denial of a provable, specific allegation against him concerning his own conduct, accompanied by a claim that the accuser was lying" is not rhetorical or a statement of opinion.
Presumably, the case will be heard on appeal by New York's highest court.
[image: Richard Westall, Sword of Damocles, 1812 via]
The Ninth Circuit rebuffed federal preemption and First Amendment challenges by Airbnb and HomeAway.com to Santa Monica's regulations on vacation home rentals. The ruling means that Santa Monica's regs can stay in place, and gives a green light to other jurisdictions that similarly seek to regulate these services.
The case, HomeAway.com v. City of Santa Monica, involves Santa Monica's efforts to regulate the Internet vacation home-rental market. The city first prohibited all short-term home rentals of 30 consecutive days or less, except licensed "home-sharing" (rentals where residents remain on-site with guests). It later added four requirements for Internet hosting platforms for vacation rentals: (1) collecting and remitting "Transient Occupancy Taxes," (2) disclosing certain listing and booking information regularly, (3) refraining from completing any booking transaction for properties not licensed and listed on the City's registry, and (4) refraining from collecting or receiving a fee for "facilitating or providing services ancillary to a vacation rental or unregistered home-share." Under the ordinance, if a platform complies with these requirements, it's presumed to be in compliance with the law. Otherwise, violations carry a fine up to $500 or imprisonment for up to six months.
Airbnb and HomeAway.com sued, arguing that the requirements were preempted by the federal Communications Decency Act and violated free speech. The Ninth Circuit rejected these claims.
As to the CDA, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the regs didn't require the plaintiffs to act as a "publisher or speaker," which would have brought them within the CDA's immunity provision. (The CDA provides Internet companies immunity from certain claims and liability in order "to promote the continued development of the Internet and other interactive computer services.") The court said that Santa Monica's regs only prohibited the plaintiffs from processing transactions for unregistered parties, not to monitor third-party content. Moreover, it held that the regs didn't require the plaintiffs to remove third-party content (even if in practice the plaintiffs would). Finally, the court ruled that the regs "would not pose an obstacle to Congress's aim to encourage self-monitoring of third-party content," so wouldn't post an obstacle to congressional purposes under the Act.
As to the First Amendment, the court said that the ordinance doesn't regulate speech (it regulates conduct, a commercial exchange), it doesn't "singl[e] out those engaged in expressive activity," and "the incidental impacts on speech . . . raise minimal concerns."
Tuesday, March 12, 2019
In its en banc opinion in Planned Parenthood of Greater Ohio v. Hodges, the Sixth Circuit reversed a permanent injunction by the district judge against Ohio Rev. Code §3701.034 which bars any state funding — including government-sponsored health and education programs that target sexually transmitted diseases, breast cancer and cervical cancer, teen pregnancy, infant mortality, and sexual violence — to any organization that performs or promotes abortion.
In less than 12 pages, Judge Jeffrey Sutton, writing for the 11 judge majority, rejected the claim that the Ohio statute was an unconstitutional condition on the due process right encompassing the right to abortion by stating that Planned Parenthood had no substantive due process right to provide abortions: "The Supreme Court has never identified a freestanding right to perform abortions." Moreover, Sutton's opinion rejected the argument that
the Ohio law will deprive Ohio women of their constitutional right of access to abortion services without undue burden, because it will lead Planned Parenthood and perhaps other abortion providers to stop providing them. Maybe; maybe not. More to the point, the conclusion is premature and unsupported by the record.
In this way, the majority distinguished the United States Supreme Court's most recent abortion case, Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt (2016), albeit briefly (with one "cf." citation and one "see" citation).
In the dissenting opinion, Judge Helene White writing for 6 judges, criticizes the majority for not mentioning "much less" applying,
the test the Supreme Court has recently articulated governing the unconstitutional-conditions doctrine. That doctrine prohibits the government from conditioning the grant of funds under a government program if: (1) the challenged conditions would violate the Constitution if they were instead enacted as a direct regulation; and (2) the conditions affect protected conduct outside the scope of the government program.
citing Agency for Int’l Dev. v. Alliance for Open Soc’y Int’l (2013) [the "prostitution pledge" case].
The dissent concludes that because "(1) the funding conditions in this case would result in an undue burden on a woman’s right to obtain nontherapeutic abortions if imposed directly, and (2) the six federal programs have nothing to do with Plaintiffs’ performing abortions, advocating for abortion rights, or affiliating with organizations that engage in such activity, all on their own 'time and dime,' " the Ohio statute should be unconstitutional.
The dissenting opinion also discusses the First Amendment argument, which the district court judge had credited but which the majority discounted because to prevail Ohio need only show that one limitation satisfied the Constitution and because "the conduct component of the Ohio law does not impose an unconstitutional condition in violation of due process, we need not reach the free speech claim." For the dissent, the free speech claim was not mooted and should be successful as in Agency for Int’l Dev. v. Alliance for Open Soc’y Int’l (2013).
March 12, 2019 in Abortion, Courts and Judging, Due Process (Substantive), First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Gender, Opinion Analysis, Reproductive Rights, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)
Wednesday, February 27, 2019
In oral argument in The American Legion v. American Humanist Association, consolidated with Maryland-National Park and Planning Commission v. American Humanist Association, the Court considered whether a 40 foot "Latin Cross" situated on a traffic island taking up one-third of an acre at the busy intersection of Maryland Route 450 and U.S. Route 1 in Bladensburg, Md., erected to honor the dead of World War I, violates the Establishment Clause.
Recall that a divided panel of the Fourth Circuit held that the cross violated the Establishment Clause, applying Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) as a "useful guidepost" augmented by the plurality in Van Orden v. Perry (2005) regarding passive monuments.
Michael Carvin, arguing for the American Legion, proposed replacing the Lemon test with a very broad standard that made all sectarian symbols erected or maintained by governments presumptively constitutional, except in "the rare case in which they've been misused to proselytize." Carvin's argument would essentially vitiate the Establishment Clause and the Justices did not seem inclined to go that far. However, there was much discussion regarding whether the endorsement inquiry under Lemon — or any portion of Lemon — was appropriate or workable.
In considering whether the Latin cross was exclusionary of non-Christians, Neal Katyal, arguing for the Maryland state government party, stated that "factually, one of the main proponents for fundraisers of this particular cross was J. Moses Eldovich, who himself was a Jewish veteran." Later in the argument, Chief Justice Roberts returned to this point in a colloquy with Monica Miller (pictured right) arguing on behalf of the American Humanist Association:
CJ ROBERTS: Well, but that’s one of the main criticisms of the - - - of the Lemon test - - - that different people are going to process that [the relationship between Christianity and citizenship virtues] in different ways.
I mean, you heard from one of your friends on the other side that one of the major fund-raisers of this was a Jewish individual. So he was obviously observing it or anticipating it in a different way.
MILLER: Well, Your Honor, I think that we cannot take one person's example, again, someone who is probably one of maybe the only Jewish people in that county at a time when there was an active clan [Klan] burning crosses, burning Jewish buildings or Jewish, you know, businesses at a time when atheists couldn't run for office, Jews had to swear that they believed in an after-life in order to qualify, I mean —
Justice Kagan, attempted to ask a question, “why does it even matter?” But Justice Alito, overriding Kagan, pointed out that there were 12 African-American soldiers’ names on the cross, and then asked Ms. Miller:
JUSTICE ALITO: And do you think that the -- that the situation of -- of African Americans in Prince George's County at that time was worse -- was better than the situation for Jews?
Ms. Miller responded by stating that it was unclear how the names actually were chosen to be on the cross and that not all of them were from Prince George’s county.
While predictions from oral argument are always fraught, the majority of the Court seems poised to depart from Lemon and rather than articulate a new standard, stress the longstanding nature of the "monument" as in Van Orden.
Monday, February 25, 2019
The Court heard oral arguments in Manhattan Community Access Corporation v. Halleck, presenting the question of when (if ever) the actions of a private nonprofit corporation operating a public access television channel constitute sufficient state action warranting application of the First Amendment. As we discussed in our preview, the doctrinal question revolves around whether it is general constitutional state action doctrine or public forum doctrine under the First Amendment or whether there is a convergence of the two doctrines. The Second Circuit held that there were sufficient allegations of state action and First Amendment violations to prevent dismissal of the complaint.
Recall that the case involves a claim that Manhattan Community Access Corporation, known as Manhattan Neighborhood Network, MNN, suspended the plaintiffs, Halleck and Melendez, from airing programs over the MNN public access channels because of disapproval of the content in violation of the First Amendment, which requires state action.
In oral argument, Michael DeLeeuw, arguing for MNN, began by stating that MNN could not be deemed a state actor under any of the Court's state action tests. On the other hand, in the conclusion to his argument on behalf of the original plaintiffs, Paul Hughes stated that his "argument is limited to the context of public forums and the administration of public forums being state action" and "goes no further than that."
In between, the Justices probed factual questions regarding the composition of the MNN board, MNN's ability to curate content (or whether it must adhere to first-come-first-served), the practice with other public access channels, the agreement scheme between the city and MNN as well as regulations, and searched for analogies in railroads, "private prisons," and schools opening their facilities. Early in the argument, Chief Justice Roberts asked whether facts about MNN's ability to curate content was disputed, with counsel for MNN responding that they were, and Chief Justice Roberts responding that the case was before the Court on the pleadings. At several points, Justice Breyer focused on specific facts, noting that certain facts tended toward or against there being state action or the creation of a public forum.
On the whole, the argument seemed to favor a very particularized analysis. So while the Court could certainly articulate a broad new standard for state action, it seems more likely that the Court's decision will be a narrow one focused on the rather unique circumstances of this public access arrangement.
Tuesday, February 19, 2019
United States Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, writing a concurring opinion from the denial of certiorari in McKee v. Cosby, has essentially called for an abandonment of First Amendment concerns in the torts of defamation and libel. Interestingly, the lawsuit involves a claim by McGee, who accused actor and comedian Bill Cosby of sexual assault, for defamation based on a letter from Cosby's attorney which allegedly damaged her reputation for truthfulness and honesty. The First Circuit, affirming the district judge, found that by making the public accusation, McKee became a "limited-purpose public figure" under First Amendment doctrine and therefore would have to show not only that the statements were false, but that they were made with actual malice (knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth).
McKee had sought review of the determination that she was a limited public figure. The Court declined. Justice Thomas's concurring opinion does not address this "fact bound inquiry," but instead argues that the Court should reconsider the doctrinal basis for the lower courts' decisions, including New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), which the opinion extensively discusses. In a nutshell, Thomas argues that New York Times v. Sullivan and its progeny are "policy-driven decisions masquerading as constitutional law": there was no "public figure" doctrine of libel at common law and an originalist understanding of the First Amendment does not extend to state law torts such as defamation and libel. While New York Times v. Sullivan may seem like settled precedent entitled to respect under stare decisis, Justice Thomas notes that the Court "did not begin meddling in this area until 1964, nearly 174 years after the First Amendment was ratified."
What should we make of this thirteen page concurring opinion? It can seem a gratuitous intervention in a case in which it would not make a difference. Or it can seem just another occasion for Justice Thomas to articulate his hallmark originalism. Or it could be an invitation for lower federal judges — and for litigators — to start challenging the First Amendment actual malice standard for defamation and libel more directly. Additionally, this position is quite consonant with the President's statements that libel laws need revision and Trump's reputation as a "libel bully," although perhaps cases such as Summer Zervos lawsuit against Trump — very similar to McKee's against Cosby — Trump would be disserved by a more common law approach. But in the cases in which Mr. Trump were the plaintiff, an absence of the burden of having to prove "actual malice" would certainly work to his benefit.
Wednesday, February 13, 2019
On February 25, the Court will hear oral arguments in Manhattan Community Access Corporation v. Halleck, presenting the question of when (if ever) the actions of a private nonprofit corporation operating a public access television channel constitute sufficient state action warranting application of the First Amendment.
In the Second Circuit's divided opinion in Halleck v. Manhattan Community Access Corporation (2018), the majority concluded that the "public access TV channels in Manhattan are public forums and the MCAC's employees were sufficiently alleged to be state actors taking action barred by the First Amendment to prevent dismissal" of the complaint, thus reversing the district judge. At the heart of the First Amendment claim are allegations that the Manhattan Community Access Corporation, known as Manhattan Neighborhood Network, MNN, suspended the plaintiffs, Halleck and Melendez, from airing programs over the MNN public access channels because of disapproval of the content.
But before reaching that heart are sticky issues involving whether the First Amendment applies at all given the complex statutory and regulatory schemes governing "public access" television. Additionally, the conflation of the state action threshold for all constitutional claims and the doctrine of "public forum" under the First Amendment can make the analysis murky. As a further complication, the most applicable precedent is Denver Area Educational Telecommunications Consortium, Inc. v. FCC (1996) which the majority opinion in Halleck by Judge Jon Newman accurately describes as "a case that generated six opinions spanning 112 pages of the United States Reports," in which "five Justices expressed differing views on whether public access channels were public forums." Judge Newman acknowledged that there was not only disagreement among the Justices, there was disagreement among the Circuits and District Courts, but ultimately declared:
With all respect to those courts that have expressed a view different from ours, we agree with the view expressed by Justices Kennedy and Ginsburg in Denver Area. Public access channels, authorized by Congress to be “the video equivalent of the speaker’s soapbox” and operating under the municipal authority given to MNN in this case, are public forums, and, in the circumstances of this case, MNN and its employees are subject to First Amendment restrictions.
Writing a dissent on this issue in the Second Circuit, Judge Dennis Jacobs essentially criticized the conflation of the state action and First Amendment public forum issues, arguing that the majority opinion
private property leased by the Government for public expressive activity creates a public forum; a facility deemed to be a public forum is usually operated by Government; action taken at a facility determined to be a public forum usually is state action; the First Amendment applies to a person acting at such a facility if the person has a sufficient connection to Government authority to constitute state action; and here, the Borough President’s designation of MNN to administer the public‐access station is sufficient.
[citations to majority opinion omitted]. Judge Jacobs would have applied state action doctrine under the Second Circuit requiring that a private entity can only be deemed a state actor if there is compulsion by the state, or joint action with the state (an entwinement analysis), or when the private entity has been delegated a public function by the state. In his concurrence, Judge Lohier argued that there was state action under the public function analysis, but for Judge Jacob, the operation of an "entertainment facility" was not a traditional public function: "And it is fortunate for our liberty that it is not at all a near‐exclusive function of the state to provide the forums for public expression, politics, information, or entertainment."
Looking forward to the oral argument at the Supreme Court, it will be worth noticing whether the Justices focus on public forum doctrine under the First Amendment or on state action doctrine or whether the problematical convergence of the two doctrines continues.
In its thorough opinion in Davison v. Randall (& Loudoun County), the Fourth Circuit earlier this month concluded that the interactive component of the Facebook Page of Phyllis Randall, the Chair of Loudoun County, Virginia constituted a public forum and that the Chair engaged in classic viewpoint discrimination violating the First Amendment when she banned a constituent from posting on the page.
The Fourth Circuit's unanimous opinion by Judge James Wynn affirms the opinion by District Judge James Cacheris which we extensively discussed here.
However, for the first time on appeal the government defendants raised the argument that the individual constituent who was temporarily banned, Brian Davison, lacked Article III standing because he did not suffer an injury in fact. Judge Wynn's opinion first found that the plaintiff evinced an intent to engage in the proscribed conduct in the future — here, commenting on Facebook Pages of the government official — which was easily satisfied given that he was "active in local politics." Second, Judge Wynn's opinion found that there continued to be a credible threat of future "enforcement" by the government, especially given past actions and that Randall had not "disavowed" future enforcement.
Judge Wynn's opinion for the Fourth Circuit on the state action threshold issue agrees with the district court's opinion that there is state action. Judge Wynn wrote that the issue of whether there is sufficient "color of state law" under 42 U.S.C. §1983 is "synonymous with the more familiar state action requirement applicable to Fourteenth Amendment claims" and the analysis for each is identical. The precise contours of that analysis do not admit to a "specific formula" according to the opinion, instead meriting consideration of the totality of the circumstances and whether there is a sufficiently close nexus. Importantly, here the court concluded that the official used the power and prestige of her office to damage the plaintiff constituent based upon events which arose out of her official status.
On the First Amendment merits, Judge Wynn's opinion found that the Facebook Page — or portions of it — created a public forum, an issue that is intertwined with the state action issue. For the public forum question, the Fourth Circuit, like the district judge, again discussed the specifics of the Facebook Page and interactive component with its invitation for ANY Loudoun resident to make comments on ANY issues. The court noted the language from the Supreme Court's opinion in Packingham v. North Carolina (2017) commenting that social media as currently the most important place for the exchange of views. Judge Wynn rejected the government's arguments that Facebook was a private website that cannot be converted to a public forum, noting that the forum analysis under the First Amendment applies to private property dedicated to public use. Judge Wynn also rejected the government's argument that the Facebook Page was exempt from First Amendment analysis as government speech, again noting that it specifically invited constituents to participate.
Interestingly, the Fourth Circuit analogized to Halleck v. Manhattan Community Access Corp (2nd Cir. 2018), which, as the opinion discussed in a footnote, is now before the United States Supreme Court on certiorari (our preview is here). But the Fourth Circuit distinguished the issues before the Court in Halleck as being state action issues rather than the public forum issues to which it analogized.
Tuesday, February 12, 2019
The Fourth Circuit rejected an eleventh-grade student's Establishment Clause and Free Speech Clause claims against school administrators and the district for including lessons on Islam in a world history course. The ruling ends the challenge and leaves the lessons in place.
The case, Wood v. Arnold, involves a particular reading and a separate particular exercise in a "Muslim World" unit within a larger world history class. The reading, which appeared on a PowerPoint slide, said, "Most Muslim's [sic] faith is stronger than the average Christian." (Underlining in original.) The exercise required students to fill in the blanks for this statement: "There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah." (Underlined words were blank in the original.)
A student challenged the two lessons under the Establishment Clause and Free Speech Clause. The Fourth Circuit rejected those claims.
The court ruled that, given the larger context, the lessons did not violate the Lemon test: they had a sufficiently secular purpose (to study comparative religions); they did not inhibit or advance religion (applying the endorsement test as the second prong under Lemon, they merely "identif[ied] the views of a particular religion," and didn't endorse those views); and they did not entangle government and religion (because they were not religious in the first place).
As to free speech, the court said that the fill-in-the-blank exercise didn't violate the student's right against compelled speech, because it was a school exercise that didn't require her to adopt any particular view.
Wednesday, February 6, 2019
The Third Circuit ruled in Adams v. Governor of Delaware that the state's constitutional requirement for political balance among the judges on most state courts violated the plaintiff's free association rights under the First Amendment. The ruling means that plaintiff James Adams can throw his hat in the ring for state judicial positions, even if his independent party status would otherwise bar his appointment under the balancing requirement.
The case tests Delaware's constitutional requirement that most state courts have political balance on the bench between the two major political parties. (The provision is at Article IV, Section 3 of the Delaware Constitution.) The governor's appointments are thus restricted by available slots for Democrats or Republicans. And in most cases the provision makes no room for independents or other party candidates for the bench. (Delaware's judges are appointed by the governor on the advice of a judicial nominating commission, with confirmation by the state Senate. When advertising for open positions, the commission designates available slots by party--"Democrat" or "Republican.")
The court ruled that restriction violated Adams's free association rights under Elrod v. Burns, Branti v. Finkel, and Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois. First, the court (creating a split with the Sixth and Seventh Circuits) concluded that state judges were not policy-making positions or confidential positions:
Judges simply do not fit this description. The American Bar Association's Model Code of Judicial Conduct instructs judges to promote "independence" and "impartiality," not loyalty. It also asks judges to refrain from political or campaign activity. The Delaware Code of Judicial Conduct similarly makes clear that judges must be "unswayed by partisan interests" and avoid partisan political activity. The Delaware Supreme Court has stated that Delaware judges "must take the law as they find it, and their personal predilections as to what the law should be have no place in efforts to override properly stated legislative will." Independence, not political allegiance, is required of Delaware judges.
[T]he question before us is not whether judges make policy, it is whether they make policies that necessarily reflect the political will and partisan goals of the party in power. . . .
To the extent that Delaware judges create policy, they do so by deciding individual cases and controversies before them, not by creating partisan agendas that reflect the interests of the parties to which they belong. . . . [T]he operation of the judicial branch is not "so intimately related to [Delaware] policy" that the Governor would have "the right to receive the complete cooperation and loyalty of a trusted advisor [in that position]."
Next, the court said that even if the state's interest in partisan balance on the bench was a compelling interest, the constitutional requirement of balance wasn't the only (or narrowest) way it could achieve that interest.
Judge McKee concurred and wrote separately "to note the potential damage to the image of the judiciary [in states that select judges in general elections preceded by partisan political campaigns] and the extent to which it can undermine the public's faith in the judges who are elected."
Friday, February 1, 2019
In its en banc opinion in American Beverage Association v. City and County of San Francisco the Ninth Circuit unanimously found that the San Francisco ordinance requiring a warning about the health effects of sugary drinks likely violated the First Amendment and should be enjoined.
The ordinance provided that advertisements for Sugar-Sweetened Beverages (SSB) include a warning:
WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay. This is a message from the City and County of San Francisco.
It further defined advertisements and importantly provided detailed instructions regarding the form, content, and placement of the warning on SSB Ads, including a requirement that the warning occupy at least 20% of the advertisement and be set off with a rectangular border.
Recall that the Ninth Circuit panel had similarly found that the SF ordinance most likely violated the First Amendment, reversing the District Judge's failure to grant a preliminary injunction.
The problem of the level of scrutiny to apply when the government compels speech in a commercial setting is one that has been reoccurring. In short, the choice of standards is 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). Judge Graber noted that the Ninth Circuit had previously decided that the more lenient test of Zauderer applied in CTIA - The Wireless Ass'n v. City of Berkeley. However, a closely divided United States Supreme Court in National Institute of Family & Life Advocates (NIFLA) v. Becerra (2018), "applied the Zauderer test without deciding whether that test, in fact, applied" and found that a California statute mandating disclosures by crisis-pregnancy centers violated the First Amendment. But, according to Judge Graber's opinion, while NIFLA required the Ninth Circuit to reexamine the approach to challenges to compelled commercial speech, "nothing in NIFLA suggests that CTIA was wrongly decided," especially given the concern with health and safety warnings as permissible.
Under Zauderer, the usual factors require that the compelled disclosure be factual, non-controversial, and not unjustified or unduly burdensome, and then application of the lenient standard of a substantial government interest to which the mandated disclosure is reasonably related. Here, Judge Graber's opinion for the court concluded that the warning was unduly burdensome given the mandated size of the warning as 20% of the image.
While Judge Graber's opinion for the en banc court is relatively succinct, several other judges wrote opinions to disagree with the reasoning but not the result. Judge Sandra Ikuta, who authored the panel opinion, which was issued before the Supreme Court's opinion in NIFLA, argued that NIFLA provided a (new) framework mandating that the compelled speech regulation be considered a First Amendment content-based regulation subject to heightened scrutiny unless a Zauderer exception applies. In another concurring opinion, Judge Morgan Christen, joined by Chief Judge Sidney Thomas, agreed with the majority that Zauderer applied, but concluded that the warning did not survive the "purely factual" and "noncontroversial" factors of Zauderer. A third concurring opinion, authored by Judge Jacqueline Nguyen, objected to the application of Zauderer outside the context of false or misleading speech and argued that the more intermediate scrutiny test of Central Hudson Gas & Elec. Corp. v. Pub. Serv. Comm’n of New York (1980) should apply.
These varying opinions suggest that the issue of the First Amendment consequences of states requiring warnings and thus arguably infringing commercial speech is far from resolved, although the agreement on the result here may mean that this is an unlikely case for Supreme Court review.
The Fourth Circuit ruled in McClure v. Ports that the Maryland Transit Authority didn't retaliate against a local union president in violation of the First Amendment when it revoked his access privileges to MTA property in reprisal for his protected speech. The court also dismissed the plaintiff's Fourth Amendment claim.
The case arose when David McClure, President of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1300, led a public advocacy campaign against unsafe MTA policies and operations. He later represented a worker in a disciplinary hearing, where the MTA claimed that he verbally harassed an MTA hearing officer.
Citing the harassment, the MTA required McClure to get permission before entering MTA's offices, and revoked his keycard access to its facilities. After McClure several times re-entered MTA properties without permission (in order to represent union workers), the MTA had him escorted out by police (the basis of his Fourth Amendment claim).
McClure sued, arguing that the MTA retaliated against him in violation of the First Amendment by requiring permission to enter its properties and by revoking his keycard access.
The Fourth Circuit disagreed. The court assumed that McClure engaged in protected speech, and that the MTA retaliated against him because of that speech. But it held that the MTA's retaliatory actions didn't amount to unconstitutionally adverse behavior. According to the court, that's because McClure's interest in maintaining access to MTA property was "slight when compared to the government's interest in regulating such access."
On the one side of the scale, the court said that McClure was never entitled to enter MTA property: the collective bargaining agreement permitted union representatives' access only on permission of the MTA; McClure could have represented union members at grievance hearings at off-site locations (an option that the MTA offered); and McClure's keycard access was extended simply by grace of the MTA. On the other side, the MTA's interest in restricting access to its property, including private offices and garages with heavy machinery, was "weighty."
Wednesday, January 16, 2019
The Fifth Circuit dismissed the free-speech claim of a state-court staff attorney who suffered reprisal for reporting judicial misconduct. The court ruled that the defendant, the court's chief justice, was entitled to qualified immunity, because the First Amendment law wasn't clearly established at the time of the reprisal.
The case arose when a "briefing attorney" for a state-court judge reported judicial misconduct on the part of the court's chief justice. The chief justice then arranged for the attorney not to be hired for a staff-attorney position in another judge's chambers. The attorney sued, arguing that the chief's actions amounted to retaliation for his free speech in violation of the First Amendment. The chief argued that the attorney's actions were governed by the state code of judicial conduct (which requires state judges and their staff to report judicial misconduct), that the speech was therefore pursuant to the attorney's "official duty," and that it was therefore unprotected.
The Fifth Circuit ruled that circuit law says that required disclosures are not part of an employee's "official duty" (and therefore are protected by the First Amendment), but that caselaw established this principle only after the chief's retaliation. As a result, the law wasn't "clearly established" when the chief retaliated, and he was therefore entitled to qualified immunity.
The court also ruled that the attorney's suit dodged Eleventh Amendment immunity problems under Ex Parte Young, because he sought only injunctive relief for an ongoing violation. But the relief he sought--appointment as a staff attorney for a judge on the court--was unavailable, because his original judge (the one who withdrew a job offer in light of the chief's retaliation) was no longer on the court, and because other judges selected their own staff attorneys. "There is no ongoing violation of federal law in the failure to hire Anderson for a different staff attorney position with a different judge."
The Sixth Circuit ruled today that a school district's exclusion of a non-preferred vendor from "Band Night" did not violate the First Amendment. In so ruling, the court rejected the vendor's sweeping free-speech claim that could have turned many contract disputes into First Amendment violations.
The case involved the Coopersville Area Public Schools' decision to limit participation at the District's "Band Night" to a single musical-instrument vendor. (The District previously opened Band Night to any vendors.) After conducting a competitive process, the District selected Meyer Music, and rejected a competitor, West Michigan Band Instruments, which had previously participated in Band Night. WMBI sued, arguing that its exclusion violated the First Amendment, because the exclusion meant that it couldn't promote its viewpoint (that it was the best musical-instrument vendor for band students and parents) at Band Night.
The court ruled that Band Night was either a limited public forum or nonpublic forum, and that the exclusion did not amount to viewpoint discrimination. The court said that WMBI failed to allege viewpoint discrimination, but, even if it did, "WMBI is a vendor who was excluded from a school forum, not because of its viewpoint, but because of its status as a non-preferred vendor who lost to Myer Music in the bidding process."
The court recognized that school districts put out bids for any number of different projects, and that a ruling in favor of WMBI could have transformed contract awards into First Amendment claims for the losing bidders.