Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Supreme Court Justice Thomas Calls for Expanding Defamation Liability

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).

Clarence_Thomas_official_SCOTUS_portrait_cropMcKee 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.

 

February 19, 2019 in Courts and Judging, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

SCOTUS Preview: State Action and Public Access Television

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.

Old_television_setBut 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.

 

February 13, 2019 in First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, State Action Doctrine, Supreme Court (US), Television | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fourth Circuit Finds Public Official Violated First Amendment Rights of Constituent on Facebook

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.

Facebook-mouse-cursor-mouse-pointer-76536Judge 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.

February 13, 2019 in Courts and Judging, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Standing, State Action Doctrine | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Fourth Circuit Rejects Student's Establishment, Free Speech Claims Against Lesson on Islam

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.

February 12, 2019 in Cases and Case Materials, Establishment Clause, First Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Third Circuit Says Political Balancing on Bench Violates Free Association

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."

February 6, 2019 in Association, Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, February 1, 2019

En Banc Ninth Circuit Finds Sugared Beverages Warning Violates First Amendment

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.

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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.

 

February 1, 2019 in First Amendment, Food and Drink, Opinion Analysis, Speech, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

Fourth Circuit Dings Union President's First Amendment Retaliation Claim

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."

February 1, 2019 in Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Fifth Circuit Dismisses Whistleblower Retaliation Claim under First Amendment, Qualified Immunity

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."

January 16, 2019 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, First Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sixth Circuit Rebuffs Sweeping Free Speech Claim

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.

January 16, 2019 in Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Iowa Federal Judge Strikes Ag-Gag Statute as Violating First Amendment

In  an Order in Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Reynolds, United States District Judge James Gritzner for the Southern District of Iowa declared Iowa Code § 717A.3, violated the First Amendment. The provisions, similar to ones in other states and popularly known ag-gag laws, were intended at least in part to prevent animal rights activists and others from, as one legislator stated, going out to "gin up campaigns that they use to raise money by trying to give the agriculture industry a bad name.” The law introduced the new crime of “agricultural production facility fraud” which would be committed if the person willfully:

  1. Obtains access to an agricultural production facility by false pretenses[, or]
  2. Makes a false statement or representation as part of an application or agreement to be employed at an agricultural production facility, if the person knows the statement to be false, and makes the statement with an intent to commit an act not authorized by the owner of the agricultural production facility, knowing that the act is not authorized.

800px-Cute_PigletJudge Gritzner noted and relied upon other recent opinions including the Ninth Circuit's 2018 decision in Animal Defense League Fund v. Wadsen holding most of Idaho's ag-gag law violative of the First Amendment and the district court 2017 decision in Animal Defense Fund v. Herbert holding Utah's ag-gag law unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

Judge Gritnzer rejected the argument that the Iowa statute regulated only conduct and found it to be a content-based regulation. But 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, did not provide an easy answer to the level of scrutiny that should be applied to a content-based falsity regulation. So, much like the Ninth Circuit in Wadsen, Judge Gritnzer applied both strict scrutiny and intermediate scrutiny, concluding that the statutory provisions failed both. In short, the statute "is so broad in its scope, it is already discouraging the telling of a lie in contexts where harm is unlikely and the need for prohibition is small. The right to make the kinds of false statements implicated by § 717A.3A—whether they be investigative deceptions or innocuous lies—is protected by our country’s guarantee of free speech and expression."

Certainly the trend has been for courts to hold these ag-gag laws unconstitutional.

[image via]

 

January 9, 2019 in First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, January 4, 2019

SCOTUS Grants Certiorari on First Amendment Challenge to Trademark Rejection of Immoral or Scandalous Mark

The Court granted certiorari in Iancu v. Brunetti regarding the constitutionality of Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1052(a), which  prohibits the federal registration of “immoral” or “scandalous” trademarks. The Federal Circuit Court of Appeals held that the section violates the First Amendment. At issue was a rejection to a trademark to Brunetti's apparel line named "fuct."  The Federal Circuit Court concluded with an interesting analogy to copyright protection and the First Amendment:

The trademark at issue is vulgar. And the government included an appendix in its briefing to the court which contains numerous highly offensive, even shocking, images and words for which individuals have sought trademark registration. Many of the marks rejected under §2(a)’s bar on immoral or scandalous marks, including the marks discussed in this opinion, are lewd, crass, or even disturbing. We find the use of such marks in commerce discomforting, and are not eager to see a proliferation of such marks in the marketplace. There are, however, a cadre of similarly offensive images and words that have secured copyright registration by the government. There are countless songs with vulgar lyrics, blasphemous images, scandalous books and paintings, all of which are protected under federal law. No doubt many works registered with the Copyright Office offend a substantial composite of the general public. There are words and images that we do not wish to be confronted with, not as art, nor in the marketplace. The First Amendment, however, protects private expression, even private expression which is offensive to a substantial composite of the general public. The government has offered no substantial government interest for policing offensive speech in the context of a registration program such as the one at issue in this case.

We hold that the bar in § 2(a) against immoral or scandalous marks is unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment.

Newsprint_Hoodie_470xThe Federal Circuit relied heavily on  Matal v. Tam (2017) involving the band "the Slants" in which the United States Supreme Court decided that the "disparaging" provision of the same section of the Lanham Act violated the First Amendment. Recall that the Federal Circuit had also decided Matal v. Tam (f/k/a In Re Simon Shiao Tam) en banc, and the litigation in Brunetti has always been somewhat in the shadow of Tam. The Federal Circuit's opinion, rendered more than a year ago, contended that while the "immoral” or “scandalous” provisions might well be viewpoint restrictions as in Tam, they were certainly content discrimination under the First Amendment.

The concurring judge of the Federal Circuit panel in Brunetti argued that the section was amenable to a narrowing and saving construction limited to obscenity (although he agreed that because the name of Brunetti's apparel line was not obscene the trademark was unconstitutionally denied registration). The United State Supreme Court's purpose in granting certiorari is not immediately obvious, but the Under Secretary of Commerce's petition for certiorari picked up the concurring opinion's contention and argued that the Court should not declare the provisions facially unconstitutional.

[image: "news headline pullover hoodie" via]

January 4, 2019 in First Amendment, Sexuality, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

SCOTUS to hear Partisan Gerrymandering Cases (Again)

The Court has ordered oral arguments set for March on the merits of two cases involving the recurring issue of the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering, Rucho v. Common Cause and Lamone v. Benisek.

Both cases have extensive histories including previous appearances before the Supreme Court.

From North Carolina is Rucho v. Common Cause. In January 2018, a three-judge Court's extensive opinion found North Carolina's 2016 redistricting plan was unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering under the Equal Protection Clause, the First Amendment, and Article I §§ 2, 4.  The United States Supreme Court stayed the judgment shortly thereafter,  and then vacated the opinion in light of  Gill v. Whitford (2018). In July 2018, the three judge court entered an even more extensive opinion - 300 pages - finding that standing regarding an equal protection challenge was satisfied under the Gill standard. The Court also reiterated its conclusions of the unconstitutionality of partisan gerrymandering, and enjoined the State from conducting any elections using the 2016 Plan in any election after the November 6, 2018, election.

From Maryland is Lamone v. Benisek.  In June 2018, the United States Supreme Court issued a brief per curiam opinion declining to disturb the three judge court's decision not to grant to a preliminary injunction, at the same time the Court rendered its Gill v. Whitford opinion, and essentially reserved the issue of partisan gerrymandering for another day.

It seems that day has come — or will soon — but whether or not the Court will actually grapple with the constitutionality of the problem of partisan gerrymandering is as yet uncertain.

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[image: Anti-gerrymandering event at Supreme Court, October 2017, via]

 

January 4, 2019 in Courts and Judging, Elections and Voting, Equal Protection, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Recent Cases, Speech, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 28, 2018

Divided Second Circuit on Compelled Speech and Foreign Affiliates

In its opinion in Alliance for Open Society International v. United States Agency for International Development, the Second Circuit split in its application of the United States Supreme Court's 2013 opinion in the same case.

Recall that United States Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society International involved a First Amendment challenge to a provision of a federal funding statute requiring some (but not other) organizations to have an explicit policy opposing sex work.  In the relative brief opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, the Court held the spending conditions of requiring an "anti-prostitution pledge" were unconstitutional because they were not limits of the government spending program itself that specified the activities that Congress wants to subsidize, but were "conditions that seek to leverage funding to regulate speech outside the contours of the program itself." 

The subsequent litigation revolved around the reach of this holding. For the district judge and the majority of the Second Circuit panel, the holding included the plaintiff organizations and their "foreign affiliates." For dissenting Judge Chester Straub, the "foreign affiliates" possess "no constitutional rights" and the United States government was free to deny them funding for failure to comply with an otherwise unconstitutional condition. For Judge Straub, the majority misconstrued the United States Supreme Court's opinion, extending it to some vague and ill-defined set of "closely aligned" ("whatever that may mean") foreign entities.  But the majority opinion, authored by Judge Barrington Parker, rejoined that it is not the First Amendment rights of the foreign entities that are violated, but the domestic organization's speech that is compelled.  For the majority, if the government — and by extension, the dissenting Judge — "is right, then Chief Justice Roberts was wrong."

 

December 28, 2018 in Family, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Reproductive Rights, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Ninth Circuit Strikes Law Criminalizing "encouraging or inducing" Aliens to Come or Stay in U.S.

The Ninth Circuit ruled in U.S. v. Sineneng-Smith that a federal statute that criminalizes "encourag[ing] or induc[ing]" an alien to come to, to enter, or to reside in the United States violates the First Amendment. The court ruled that the statute was unconstitutionally overbroad and struck it.

The statute, 8 U.S.C. Sec. 1324(a)(1)(A)(iv), permits a felony prosecution of any person who "encourages or induces an alien to come to, enter, or reside in the United States" if the encourager knew, or recklessly disregarded "the fact that such coming to, entry, or residence is or will be in violation of law."

The court held that the law bans substantially more speech than the First Amendment allows under the incitement doctrine, or as speech integral to criminal conduct. (The court reminds us that simply being in the United States isn't a crime.) Here's an example the court quotes from an amicus brief: "a loving grandmother who urges her grandson to overstay his visa," by saying "I encourage you to stay." The statement violates Subsection (iv), but:

Again, in Williams, the Supreme Court used almost identical language--"I encourage you to obtain child pornography"--to describe abstract advocacy immune from government prohibition. The government has not responded persuasively to this point; it simply argues that the grandmother would not be subject to criminal charges because her statement was "not accompanied by assistance or other inducements." However, as we have detailed above, Subsection (iv) does not contain an act or assistance requirement.

Another example: "marches, speeches, publications, and public debate expressing support for immigrants." And other: an attorney who tells a client that the client should remain in the country while contesting removal, because non-citizens in the U.S. have greater due process rights than non-citizens outside the U.S.

The court rejected the government's limiting interpretation--that the statute only prohibits a person from (1) knowingly undertaking (2) a non-de-minimis (3) act that (4) could assist (5) a specific alien (6) in violating (7) civil or criminal immigration laws--as wholesale rewriting the law.

December 4, 2018 in Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Ninth Circuit Revives Candidate's Party-Designation Challenge

The Ninth Circuit ruled in Soltysik v. Padilla that the lower court didn't sufficiently weigh the evidence in a candidate's challenge to California's rule that only candidates who "prefer" a recognized political party can list that party as their "preference" on the ballot.

The ruling means that the lower court will take a second crack at the case.

The case tests California's law that allows candidates who prefer a recognized political party to list that party on the ballot, but requires candidates who prefer a nonrecognized party to list their preference as "none." (California has voter-nominated (not party-nominated) primary process, and primary candidates list their "preference" for a party (and not their designation as the party's nominee).) Under the rule, Soltysik, a candidate for the state assembly who preferred a nonrecognized party (the Socialist Party USA), had to list "Party Preference: None" next to his name on the ballot. He argued that this violated free association, equal protection, and free speech.

The district court, applying the Burdick/Anderson sliding-scale test, deferred to the state and dismissed the case. The Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded.

The Ninth Circuit held that the burden on Soltysik's rights "is not severe," but that "it is more than 'slight,' warranting scrutiny that is neither strict nor wholly deferentially." The court then recognized that the state's interest in avoiding voter confusion is important; but it also said that the rule seems to have the opposite effect--to create confusion--and that the state may have other ways to achieve its interest.

In any event, the court held that the parties didn't get the chance to develop evidence to support their positions, because the lower court dismissed the case before discovery. So the court remanded for further proceedings.

Judge Rawlison dissented, arguing, among other things, that the court applied too high a level of scrutiny in evaluating the rule.

December 4, 2018 in Association, Cases and Case Materials, Elections and Voting, Equal Protection, First Amendment, News, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Ninth Circuit Upholds Alaska's Contribution Limits, Except its Nonresident Aggregate Contribution Limit

The Ninth Circuit ruled in Thompson v. Hebdon that Alaska's person-to-candidate, person-to-non-political-party-group, and political-party-to-candidate contribution limits were valid. But at the same time the court struck the state's nonresident aggregate contribution limit as a violation of free speech.

The case tested four separate provisions of Alaska's campaign finance law.

The first provision limits individual contribution to candidates to $500. Based on trial court evidence, the Ninth Circuit held that the limit was "narrowly focused" to address actual and potential quid pro quo corruption in the state. As to the amount, the court noted that $500 was low, but not unreasonably so, and still allowed candidates plenty of opportunities to fund their campaigns. The court rejected the plaintiffs' argument that the cap should be measured in comparison to the prior limit, $1,000, and that the state should justify the drop.

The second provision limits individual contributions to non-party organizations to $500. The court upheld this limit as a measure designed to avoid circumvention of the individual contribution limit, above. "We conclude that Alaska has demonstrated the same interest here where the risk of circumvention of the individual-to-candidate limit is apparent: under Alaska law, any two individuals could form a 'group,' which could then funnel money to a candidate. Such groups could easily become pass-through entities for, say, a couple that wants to contribute more than the $500 individual-to-candidate limit."

The third provision limits political party contributions to candidates to $5,000. The court rejected the plaintiffs' argument that this amounts to discriminatory treatment (in comparison to labor-union PACs), but noted that its ruling doesn't foreclose a challenge to the dollar amount.

Finally, the fourth provision limits nonresident aggregate contributions to $3,000. Here's why:

Alaska fails to show why an out-of-state individual's early contribution is not corrupting, whereas a later individual's contribution--i.e., a contribution made after the candidate has already amassed $3,000 in out-of-state funds--is corrupting. Nor does Alaska show that an out-of-state contribution of $500 is inherently more corrupting than a like in-state contribution--only the former of which is curbed under Alaska's nonresident limit. Alaska fails to demonstrate that the risk of quid pro quo corruption turns on a particular donor's geography. Accordingly, while we do not foreclose the possibility that a state could limit out-of-state contributions in furtherance of an anti-corruption interest, Alaska's aggregate limit on what a candidate may receive is a poor fit.

Chief Judge Thomas concurred on the first three provisions, but dissented on this last one. Judge Thomas argued that the limit furthered the state's interests in actual quid pro quo corruption and its appearance and its interest in preserving "self-governance."

November 28, 2018 in Campaign Finance, First Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Florida District Judge Issues Injunction on Mismatched Signature Ballot Claim

In his opinion in Democratic Executive Committee of Florida v. Detzner, United States District Judge Mark Walker, Chief Judge for the Northern District of Florida, has granted the motion for a preliminary injunction and ordered Florida to "allow voters who have been belatedly notified they have submitted a mismatched-signature ballot to cure their ballots by November 17, 2018, at 5:00 p.m."

After finding that the plaintiffs had standing and were not barred by laches, Judge Walker reached the question of whether the plaintiffs were likely to prevail on their constitutional claims on the infringement of the right to vote. Judge Walker decided that the standard derived from Anderson-Burdick should be applied:

Under Anderson-Burdick, a court considering a challenge to a state election law “must weigh ‘the character and magnitude of the asserted injury to the rights protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments that the plaintiff seeks to vindicate’ against ‘the precise interests put forward by the State as justifications for the burden imposed by its rule,’ taking into consideration ‘the extent to which those interests make it necessary to burden the plaintiff’s rights.’ ” Burdick. When an election law imposes only reasonable, nondiscriminatory restrictions upon the constitutional rights of voters, the states’ important regulatory interests are generally sufficient to justify the restrictions. Id. But, “[h]owever slight the burden may appear . . . it must be justified by relevant and legitimate state interests sufficiently weighty to justify the limitations.” Common Cause/Ga. v. Billups, 554 F.3d 1340, 1352 (11th Cir. 2009). This is not a litmus test, rather the court must balance these factors and make hard judgments. Crawford v. Marion Cty. Election Bd., 553 U.S. 181, 190 (2008). Finally, “Anderson/Burdick balancing . . . should not be divorced from reality, and [] both the burden and legitimate regulatory interest should be evaluated in context.”

[some citations omitted]

Judge Walker found that the "injury is the deprivation of the right to vote based on a standardless determination made by laypeople that the signature on a voters’ vote-by-mail or provisional ballot does not match the signature on file with the supervisor of elections." The judge noted that there are  "dozens of reasons a signature mismatch may occur, even when the individual signing is in fact the voter," and concluded that disenfranchisement of "approximately 5,000 voters based on signature mismatch is a substantial burden." While Judge Walker found that Florida's interests "to prevent fraud, to efficiently and quickly report election results, and to promote faith and certainty in election results" were compelling, the "use of signature matching is not reasonable and may lead to unconstitutional disenfranchisement."

Judge Walker extended the period for voters to address a potential signature mismatch by noting that the previous opportunity to cure has "proved illusory."

Provisional ballot voters are provided no opportunity to cure under the law. Without this Court’s intervention, these potential voters have no remedy. Rather, they are simply out of luck and deprived of the right to vote. What is shocking about Florida law is that even though a voter cannot challenge a vote rejected as illegal, any voter or candidate could challenge a vote accepted as legal. The burden on the right to vote, in this case, outweighs the state’s reasons for the practice. Thus, under Anderson-Burdick, this scheme unconstitutionally burdens the fundamental right of Florida citizens to vote and have their votes counted.

Additionally, Judge Walker noted that although the plaintiffs' claims rested on the First Amendment and Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, he was also troubled by the lack of procedural due process, citing the Georgia mismatch decision in Martin v. Kemp.

Judge Walker's 34 page opinion did not cite Bush v. Gore (2000).

The Florida recount, like the Georgia recount continues, more than a week after election day.

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November 15, 2018 in Current Affairs, Elections and Voting, Equal Protection, First Amendment, Fundamental Rights, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, November 2, 2018

SCOTUS Grants Certiorari in Establishment Clause Challenge to Maryland's 40 foot "Latin Cross"

The Court has granted certiorari in Maryland-Capital Park and Planning Commission v. American Humanist Association centered on the constitutionality of a 40 foot "Latin Cross," owned and maintained by the state of Maryland and 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. 

Recall our earlier discussion regarding the divided decision in which the Fourth Circuit concluded that the government cross violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, reversing the district judge. In essence, the majority found that while there may be a legitimate secular purpose to the cross, considering that it was erected to local soldiers who died in World War I, the cross is specifically Christian and "the sectarian elements easily overwhelm the secular ones" in the display. A "reasonable observer" most likely viewing the 40 foot cross from the highway would fairly understand the Cross to have the primary effect of endorsing religion and entangles the State with religion.

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November 2, 2018 in Establishment Clause, First Amendment, Religion, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

United States District Judge Issues Injunction in Georgia Vote Challenge

In an Order in Georgia Coalition for the People's Agenda v. Kemp, United States District Judge Eleanor Ross has found that the challengers would be likely to succeed on the merits of their constitutional claim regarding Georgia's flagging of potential voters as noncitizens ineligible to vote.  Recall that a different district judge recently issued an injunction against Secretary of State Kemp — who is also a candidate for Governor — in a challenge to the "mismatch" of  voter names.

Here, Judge Ross articulated the appropriate framework as:

When deciding whether a state election law violates First and Fourteenth Amendment associational rights, we weigh the character and magnitude of the burden the State’s rule imposes on those rights against the interests the State contends justify that burden, and consider the extent to which the State’s concerns make the burden necessary.

Timmons v. Twin Cities Area New Party, 520 U.S. 351, 358 (1997).

Judge Ross first found that the burden was "severe for those individuals who have been flagged and placed in pending status due to citizenship." Discussing one particular person, Judge Ross stated that

it was not a nominal effort for him to vote; it was a burdensome process requiring two trips to the polls, his own research, and his hunting down a name and telephone number to give to election officials so that his citizenship status could be verified, all after he had already submitted proof of citizenship with his voter registration application. This is beyond the merely inconvenient.

Relying on Timmons, Judge Ross continued with a strict scrutiny analysis, finding that while the State's interest in ensuring only citizens vote was compelling, the specific means chosen were not narrowly tailored. Here, the focus was on the fact that 4 of the 5 ways in which the State proposed that persons could verify their citizenship required a "deputy registrar," which were derived from a previous settlement. However, Judge Ross declared that the court's hands were not tied as to this matter, and ultimately all 5 of the options "for allowing individuals with flags for citizenship to vote in the upcoming election, sweep broader than necessary to advance the State's interest, creating confusion as Election Day looms."

Judge Ross directed Brian Kemp in his official capacity as Secretary of State to:

  1. Allow county election officials to permit eligible voters who registered to vote, but who are inaccurately flagged as non-citizens to vote a regular ballot by furnishing proof of citizenship to poll managers or deputy registrars.

  2. Update the “Information for Pending Voters” on the Secretary of State’s website so that it provides (a) clear instructions and guidance to voters in pending status due to citizenship and (b) a contact name and telephone number that individuals may call with questions about the pending status due to citizenship.

  3. Direct all county registrars, deputy registrars, and poll managers on how to verify proof of citizenship to ensure that they can properly confirm citizenship status consistent with this order. Issue a press release (a) accurately describing how an individual flagged and placed in pending status due to citizenship may vote in the upcoming election, as set forth herein; and (b) providing a contact name and telephone number that individuals may call with questions about the pending status due to citizenship.

  4. Issue a press release (a) accurately describing how an individual flagged and placed in pending status due to citizenship may vote in the upcoming election, as set forth herein; and (b) providing a contact name and telephone number that individuals may call with questions about the pending status due to citizenship.

  5. Direct the county boards of elections to post a list of acceptable documentation to prove citizenship, which includes a naturalization certificate, birth certificate issued by a state or territory within the United States, U.S. passport, and other documents or affidavits explicitly identified by Georgia law and listed on the Georgia Secretary of State’s website, at polling places on Election Day.

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November 2, 2018 in Elections and Voting, Equal Protection, Federalism, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Race | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 15, 2018

District Judge Dismisses Stormy Daniels' Claim of Defamation Against Trump

In his 14 page opinion as a minute order in Cliffords v. Trump, the federal judge dismissed the claim of Stormy Daniels (a/k/a Stephanie Clifford) against President Trump for defamation.  Recall the claim was based on Trump's tweet  "A sketch years later about a nonexistent man. A total con job, playing the Fake News Media for Fools (but they know it)!" Daniels' complaint claimed that Trump was not only attacking the truthfulness of  Daniels, but also accusing her of a crime: fabricating a crime and an assailant, both of which are crimes under New York law. The complaint alleges that Trump "made his statement either knowing it was false, had serious doubts about the truth of his statement, or made the statement with reckless disregard for its truth or falsity."

The judge, however, found:

Mr. Trump's statement constituted "rhetorical hyperbole" that is protected by the First Amendment.

Additionally, the judge denied a motion to amend the complaint:

ShoppingThe Court holds that Mr. Trump's tweet is "rhetorical hyperbole" and is protected by the First Amendment. Plaintiff cannot amend the Complaint in a way that challenges this holding. During argument on this matter, Plaintiff suggested that she could amend her Complaint to "shore up the malice allegations" and to "provide context for the statement to show that, in fact, it was not political nature at the time it was made." (Transcript * * * ) The former amendments are futile because this Court rules that Mr. Trump's tweet is protected by the First Amendment. The issue of malice is irrelevant to this holding. The latter amendments are futile because there is no way for Plaintiff to amend the Complaint to transform the tweet from "rhetorical hyperbole" into an actionable statement. * * * * Plaintiff cannot change Mr. Trump's tweet or the basic context of the tweet. Nor can Plaintiff withdraw factual allegations that she has made in pleadings before this Court. In the other litigation before this Court, Ms. Clifford argues that Mr. Trump sought to silence her as a strategy to win the Presidential election, a clear argument against the legitimacy of Mr. Trump's Presidency. Mr. Trump issued the tweet as a rejoinder against an individual challenging him in the public arena. This is the definition of protected rhetorical hyperbole. The Court denies Plaintiff leave to amend the Complaint.

The result is not surprising given reports that after a hearing several weeks ago,  Judge James Otero indicated he would be dismissing the action.

The judge also awards Trump attorneys fees.

 

October 15, 2018 in Books, Current Affairs, First Amendment, Gender, Opinion Analysis, Sexuality | Permalink | Comments (0)