Monday, June 17, 2019
In its divided opinion in Manhattan Community Access Corporation v. Halleck, a majority of the United States Supreme Court held that the actions of a private nonprofit corporation operating a public access television channel did not constitute sufficient state action warranting application of the First Amendment.
Recall that in the Second Circuit's divided opinion (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. Importantly, the public access channels are part of Time Warner's cable system and Time Warner is a private company. 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. During oral argument the Justices grappled with the question of doctrines: whether general constitutional state action doctrine applied or whether public forum doctrine under the First Amendment applied or whether there is a convergence of the two doctrines.
Writing for the majority, Justice Kavanaugh, joined by C.J. Roberts, and Justices Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch, concluded that general constitutional state action doctrine was the threshold — and determinative — issue. The Court rearticulated the applicable state action doctrine governing when a private entity can qualify as a state actor as limited to a few circumstances:
(i) when the private entity performs a traditional, exclusive public function (citing Jackson v. Metropolitan Edison Co. (1982));
(ii) when the government compels the private entity to take a particular action (citing Blum v. Yarestsky (1982);
(iii) when the government acts jointly with the private entity (citing Lugar v. Edmondson Oil Co. (1982)).
Interestingly, neither the majority nor dissenting opinion cited Edmonson v. Leesville Concrete Co. (1991), in which a six-Justice majority articulated a test for meeting the state action threshold when there was a private actor involved.
Justice Kavanaugh's opinion focused on the first circumstance, and stressed that the requirement means that the government must have traditionally and exclusively performed the function. Given that the relevant function was defined as the "operation of public access channels on a cable system," the Court had little difficulty in concluding that the requirement was not met under a "commonsense principle":
Providing some kind of forum for speech is not an activity that only governmental entities have traditionally performed. Therefore, a private entity who provides a forum for speech is not transformed by that fact alone into a state actor. After all, private property owners and private lessees often open their property for speech. Grocery stores put up community bulletin boards. Comedy clubs host open mic nights.
The majority further rejected the plaintiffs' argument that state action was present because New York City designated MNN to operate the public access channels and New York state heavily regulates public access channels. The majority stated, however, that even where there is a contract or monopoly, the private actor is not converted into a private actor into a state actor "unless the private entity is performing a traditional, exclusive government function."
The majority also rejected the plaintiffs' argument that the public access channels are the "property" of the state of New York rather than the property of the cable network (Time Warner) or of MNN itself. The majority found, however, that "nothing in the franchise agreements" suggests that the city "possesses any property interest" in Time Warner's cable system or in the public access channels operated by Time Warner. The government could have decided to operate the public access channels itself, in which case that might be different, but that did not happen here.
Dissenting, Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan, argued that the majority misconstrued the case before the Court and this case is actually "about an organization appointed to administer a constitutional public forum" and not simply "about a private property owner that simply opened up its property to others." For the dissenting Justices, when MNN accepted the contractual agency relationship, it "stepped into the City's shoes and thus qualifies as a state actor, subject to the First Amendment like any other." The dissent argued that MNN was not simply a private actor that "simply sets up shop against a regulatory backdrop," but that it occupies its role because it was asked by New York City to do so, and was deputized by the city to administer the public access channels. The dissent also argued that the requirement that the private actor be performing a traditional and exclusive function only applies when the "private actor ventures of its own accord into territory shared (or regulated) by the government." Otherwise, the doctor hired to provide medical care to state prisoners would not be a state actor, unlike the Court's unanimous holding in West v. Atkins (1988), because "Nobody thinks that orthopedics is a function 'traditionally exclusively reserved to the State.'"
The Court's divided opinion reveals an established political rift in state action doctrine and theory. In the penultimate paragraph in Justice Kavanaugh's opinion for the majority, he writes:
It is sometimes said that the bigger the government, the smaller the individual. Consistent with the text of the Constitution, the state-action doctrine enforces a critical boundary between the government and the individual, and thereby protects a robust sphere of individual liberty. Expanding the state-action doctrine beyond its traditional boundaries would expand governmental control while restricting individual liberty and private enterprise. We decline to do so in this case.
On the other hand, Justice Sotomayor for the four dissenting Justices concludes:
This is not a case about bigger governments and smaller individuals; it is a case about principals and agents. New York City opened up a public forum on public- access channels in which it has a property interest. It asked MNN to run that public forum, and MNN accepted the job. That makes MNN subject to the First Amendment, just as if the City had decided to run the public forum itself.
While the majority emphasizes that its decision is narrow and factbound, that does not make it any less misguided. It is crucial that the Court does not continue to ignore the reality, fully recognized by our precedents, that private actors who have been delegated constitutional responsibilities like this one should be accountable to the Constitution’s demands. I respectfully dissent.
Thus, while the decision seems narrow, it could be a harbinger of a narrowing of state action doctrine to release private entities that contract with the state from constitutional constraints unless the entities are performing a traditional and exclusive function of the government, even if the entities are "in the shoes" of the state.
Friday, June 7, 2019
In its unanimous opinion in State of Washington v. Arlene's Flowers, the Washington Supreme Court concluded there was no First Amendment infringement when the state found Arlene's Flowers violated the Washington Law Against Discrimination (WLAD), by refusing to sell wedding flowers to a same-sex couple.
Recall that in June 2018, the United States Supreme Court without opinion, in Arlene's Flowers v. Washington, granted the petition for writ of certiorari, vacated the judgment of the Washington Supreme Court, and remanded the case for consideration in light of its decision earlier than month in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Comm'n. Given the holding in Masterpiece Cakeshop that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, or one specific commissioner, exhibited "hostility" to the cakemaker in that case, the Washington Supreme Court was now tasked with determining whether there was a similar hostility towards the religion of the florist in Arlene's Flowers, Baronnelle Stutzman, and if so, applying strict scrutiny.
The Washington Supreme Court, on page 2 of its 76 page opinion, proclaimed: "We now hold that the answer to the Supreme Court's question is no; the adjudicatory bodies that considered this case did not act with religious animus when they ruled that the florist and her corporation violated the Washington Law Against Discrimination . . . ."
The Washington Supreme Court's lengthy opinion admittedly includes passages from its 2017 opinion which thoroughly discussed and applied the First Amendment standards, but it also carefully delves into the question of government hostility toward religion. The court found irrelevant one contested incident involving the Attorney General of Washington which occurred after the Washington Supreme Court's 2017 opinion, noting that the issue was one of adjudicatory animus and not executive branch animus; any claim that there was selective prosecution lacked merit. The Washington Supreme Court also rejected Stutzman's claim that the scope of the injunction in the 2017 opinion mandated that Stutzman "personally attend and participate in same-sex weddings."
The Washington Supreme Court's opinion concludes that "After careful review on remand, we are confident that the courts resolved this dispute with tolerance, and we therefore find no reason to change our original judgment in light of Masterpiece Cakeshop. We again affirm the trial court's rulings."
It is a solid well-reasoned unanimous opinion, but given this hard-fought and well-financed litigation, it's likely that Arlene's Flowers will again petition the United States Supreme Court for certiorari.
image: Vincent Van Gogh, Twelve Sunflowers in a Vase, circa 1887, via.
June 7, 2019 in Courts and Judging, Family, Federalism, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Gender, Opinion Analysis, Recent Cases, Religion, Sexual Orientation, State Constitutional Law, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)
The Seventh Circuit this week upheld a signatures requirement to get on the ballot in the Cook County sheriff's race.
The case, Acevedo v. Cook County Officers Electoral Board, arose when Acevedo, a would-be candidate for Cook County sheriff, failed to obtain the necessary signatures of 0.5% of qualified voters in Cook County. Acevedo noted that the signatures formula for Cook County sheriff required him to obtain more signatures (0.5% of qualified voters equals 8,236 signatures) than candidates for statewide offices (who must get only 5,000 signatures). He claimed that the signatures requirement for Cook County therefore violated strict scrutiny (because the lower signatures requirement for statewide offices showed that the government could meet its interest in a less burdensome way).
We have stressed before that "[w]hat is ultimately important is not the absolute or relative number of signatures required by whether a 'reasonably diligent candidate could be expected to be able to meet the requirements and gain a place on the ballot.'" If the burden imposed is slight, Anderson and Burdick make clear that no justification beyond the state's interest in orderly and fair elections is necessary--even if less burdensome alternatives are available.
The ruling ends this challenge and upholds the signatures requirement for Cook County sheriff.
Wednesday, June 5, 2019
In an Order in United States v. Rundo, United States District Judge Cormac J. Carney for the Central District of California dismissed an indictment against white supremacists Robert Rundo, Robert Bowman, and Aaron Eason, members of "Rise Above Movement" (RAM), concluding that the Anti-Riot Act, 18 U.S.C. §2101 violates the First Amendment as overbroad.
As Judge Carney explained in his relatively brief opinion, the Anti-Riot Act provides that:
Whoever travels in interstate or foreign commerce or uses any facility of interstate or foreign commerce, including, but not limited to, the mail, telegraph, telephone, radio, or television, with intent –
(1) to incite a riot; or
(2) to organize, promote, encourage, participate in, or carry on a riot; or
(3) to commit any act of violence in furtherance of a riot; or
(4) to aid or abet any person in inciting or participating in or carrying on a riot or committing any act of violence in furtherance of a riot;
and who either during the course of any such travel or use or thereafter performs or attempts to perform any other overt act for any purpose specified in subparagraph [(1)–(4)] . . . [s]hall be fined under this title, or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.
Moreover, after quoting the statute's definition to riot, Judge Carney explained,
to simplify, the Anti-Riot Act defines “riot” in two ways. A riot is a public disturbance involving acts of violence, committed by at least one person in a group, which results in property damage or personal injury. This first definition coincides with the common understanding of a riot––for instance, a crowd taking to the streets and smashing windows of a business. A riot also includes a public disturbance involving the threat of violence, by persons in a group, so long as at least one person could immediately act upon the threat. This second definition, for example, would apply to a group threatening to break the windows of a business, while the group is outside the business and holding rocks in their hands.
Yet, most troubling for Judge Carney was his interpretation that the statute "also criminalizes acts taken long before any crowd gathers, or acts that have only an attenuated connection to any riot, so long as the individual acts with the required purpose. See 18 U.S.C. § 2101(a). No violence even need to occur. A defendant could be convicted for renting a car with a credit card, posting about a political rally on Facebook, or texting friends about when to meet up."
The problem for Judge Carney was that the statute has "no imminence requirement": "The Anti-Riot does not require that advocacy be directed toward inciting or producing imminent lawless action. It criminalizes advocacy even where violence or lawless action is not imminent." Thus, Judge Carney concluded that the Anti-Riot Act eviscerates the protections of speech in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969). Further, Judge Carney rejected the government's argument that the Anti-Riot Act did include an imminence requirement, characterizing this as requiring "grammatical gymnastics—and some degree of hand waving–– " which the Judge was not willing to do. Judge Carney pointed out that under the Anti-Riot Act, the statement in Hess v. Indiana (1973) ("we'll take the streets later [or again]") would be criminalized, despite the United States Supreme Court's finding that such a statement did not meet the imminence requirement.
Finally, Judge Carney found that in balancing the "social costs" of upholding the statute or "striking it down," there were other laws— including state statutes — that could protect the public from violence or public disturbances, while enforcing the Anti-Riot Act substantially infringed on the rights of free speech and freedom of assembly. And while Judge Carney explicitly mentioned not condoning the message of the white supremacists and wrote that "one person's protest might be another person's riot," invoking controversial issues today such as "abortion, Black Lives Matter, climate change, or healthcare," his opinion is sure to be discussed as protecting right-wing protest.
Thursday, May 23, 2019
As anticipated, the Department of Justice has filed a superseding indictment against WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange.
The 18 count indictment charges 17 violations of the Espionage Act, 18 U.S.C. §793, as well as one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. The factual recitations revolve around Chelsea Manning occurring in 2010; other highly publicized allegations involving President Trump and Hillary Clinton do not make an appearance (and their names are not mentioned in the indictment).
The charges of unauthorized obtaining and receiving of "National Defense Information" (counts 1-8) and unauthorized disclosure of that same national defense information (counts 9-17) raise First Amendment issues.
The argument is — quite simply — that Assange has done nothing different than other journalists who have published government information and should be covered by the same constitutional protections afforded the New York Times in The New York Times v. United States (1971), "The Pentagon Papers" Case.
In Assange's situation, the issue is not prior restraint but criminal liability, but certainly the same principles apply as we previously discussed. (Also consider the documentary on Daniel Ellsburg).
This issue has been brewing for a while. A good primer on the intersection between the Espionage Act and First Amendment protections of a free press, is Stephen Vladeck's 2007 article, Inchoate Liability and the Espionage Act: The Statutory Framework and the Freedom of the Press, 1 Harvard Law & Policy Review 219, available here.
Monday, May 20, 2019
Ninth Circuit Upholds Campaign Contribution, Firearms Ban for Foreign Nationals, Nonimmigrant Visa Holders
The Ninth Circuit last week upheld federal bans on campaign contributions and firearms possession by foreign nationals and nonimmigrant visa holders, respectively, against First and Second Amendment challenges. The ruling keeps the bans in place.
The case tested the federal ban on campaign contributions by foreign nationals. The court held first that Congress had authority impose the ban:
The federal government has the "inherent power as sovereign to control and conduct relations with foreign nations." . . . Thus, where, as here, Congress has made a judgment on a matter of foreign affairs and national security by barring foreign nationals from contributing to our election processes, it retains a broad power to legislate. . . . A prohibition on campaign donations and contributions by foreign nationals is necessary and proper to the exercise of the immigration and foreign relations powers.
The court held next that the ban didn't violate the First Amendment. The court relied on the Court's summary affirmance in Bluman v. FEC, writing that "although '[t]he precedential effect of a summary affirmance extends no further than the precise issues presented and necessarily decided by those actions,' Blumen did decide the precise issue present in this case."
As to the ban on firearm possession by nonimmigrant visa holders, the court acknowledged that there's some ambiguity about whether the law "burdens conduct protected by the Second Amendment" (the first step in the two-step Second Amendment analysis):
Some courts have read the historical right as one afforded only to citizens or those involved in the political community, while others have focused instead on an individual's connection to the United States. Nonimmigrant aliens, like those unlawfully present, are neither citizens nor members of the political community.
Still, the court assumed that the Second Amendment applied and moved to the second step, application of intermediate scrutiny, and upheld the ban:
The government's interest in this case is straightforward. The government's interest is . . . crime control and maintaining public safety. . . .
Further, the statute reasonably serves this important interest. It carves out exceptions for visa holders who are less likely to threaten public safety. . . . We find this tailoring sufficient.
Monday, May 13, 2019
The Court denied certiorari to the Ninth Circuit in Dahne v. Richey with a dissenting opinion by Justice Alito, joined by Justices Thomas and Kavanaugh. For the dissenters, the question was whether the First Amendment requires a "prison to entertain a prisoner grievance that contains veiled threats to kill or injure a guard?"
The Ninth Circuit's Memorandum Opinion did not characterize the prisoner's grievance as threatening, but instead stated that it included "rude comments about the guard’s weight, including describing her as “extremely obese." The dissenting opinion from certiorari and the Ninth Circuit opinion both agree that the prison official told the prisoner to rewrite the grievance, which the prisoner did, but did not cure the defects. For the Ninth Circuit, there was a First Amendment violation when the prison official refused to allow the grievance to proceed through the administrative process after the rewrite did not satisfy the official's "sense of propriety." For the Ninth Circuit, this meant that functionally only a grievance that conformed to an official's "personal conception of acceptable content could get meaningful review," which is "the sort of content-based discrimination that runs contrary to First Amendment protections."
But for Alito and his fellow dissenting Justices, the defects in the grievance offended more than a personal sense of propriety. Instead, the dissenters stated the grievance
contained language that may reasonably be construed as a threat. Specifically, the grievance stated: “It is no wonder [why] guards are assaulted and even killed by some prisoners. When guards like this fat Hispanic female guard abuse their position . . . it can make prisoners less civilized than myself to resort to violent behavior in retaliation.”
For the dissenters, even if "a prison must accept grievances containing personal insults of guards, a proposition that is not self-evident, does it follow that prisons must tolerate veiled threats? I doubt it, but if the Court is uncertain, we should grant review in this case."
Perhaps importantly, the Ninth Circuit in this Memorandum Opinion held there was qualified immunity, which could make the grant of review seem less vital. And while it is always precarious to extrapolate from any opinion to others, the dissent her does bring to mind the issues regarding the boundaries of First Amendment protection before the Court in the trademark case of Iancu v. Brunetti argued in April.
Friday, April 26, 2019
In an opinion in Amawi v. Pflugerville Independent School District, United States District Judge for the Western District of Texas, Judge Robert Pittman, issued a temporary injunction against Texas Gov. Code § 2270.001 et seq., also known as Texas H.B. 89, passed in 2017.
HB 89 prohibits governmental entities from entering into contracts for goods or services unless the contract contains a written verification that the contractor does not and will not "boycott Israel." Texas essentially admitted HB 89 is targeted at participants in the BDS (boycott, divest, and sanction) movement which protests Israel's "occupation of Palestinian territory and its treatment of Palestinian citizens and refugees." The five plaintiffs —a speech pathologist contracting with a school district; a freelance writer, artist, interpreter, and translator contracting with a university; and three university students who would contract with high schools as debate tournament judges — refused to sign the required statement that they did not and would not boycott Israel.
Judge Pittman easily found that the plaintiffs had standing, that their claims were ripe, and that the action was not barred by Eleventh Amendment immunity.
On the merits of the First Amendment claims, Judge Pittman's careful and well reasoned opinion first concluded that the prohibition of a boycott was inherently expressive activity protected by the First Amendment. The parties had raised what Judge Pittman called "dueling precedents": NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co. (1992) and Rumsfeld v. FAIR (2006). He concluded:
Claiborne, not FAIR, governs this case. Texas does not dispute that Plaintiffs’ boycotts are political; they support the BDS movement’s “dispute with the Israeli government’s policies.” Claiborne deals with political boycotts; FAIR, in contrast, is not about boycotts at all. The Supreme Court did not treat the FAIR plaintiffs’ conduct as a boycott: the word “boycott” appears nowhere in the opinion, the decision to withhold patronage is not implicated, and Claiborne, the key decision recognizing that the First Amendment protects political boycotts, is not discussed.
Moreover, Judge Pittman stated, even if "it were generally true that boycotts are not inherently expressive, H.B. 89, by its terms, applies only to expressive boycotts," given the statutory definitions. Judge Pittman then rejected the arguments of Texas that exceptions to Claiborne were applicable.
Judge Pittman then found that the H.B. 89 was viewpoint and content discrimination, and was not government speech under Walker v. Texas Div., Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc. (2015). Applying the applicable standard of strict scrutiny, Judge Walker found that the asserted compelling governmental interests failed. Judge Pittman found two of the interests — prohibiting national-origin discrimination, and prohibiting state contractors from violating anti-discrimination principles — to essentially be not the actual interests underlying H.B. 89. Judge Pittman noted the statute does not refer to the "national origin" or "nationality" of individuals but to "the nation of Israel." Judge Pittman described the statute as being "underinclusive" in this way, providing examples of who would and would not be covered by the statute. As to the third interest asserted by Texas — aligning the state's commercial interests with Israel because it is “one of the few democracies in the Middle East and an ally of the United States and this State" — Judge Pittman essentially found this was not compelling. Texas had argued that “the First Amendment does not prevent restrictions directed at commerce or conduct from imposing incidental burdens on speech,” but Judge Pittman found that this was not an "incidental burden" on speech, but targeted specific speech directly.
Judge Pittman then proceeded to an analysis of the means chosen, although clearly stated that because "H.B. 89 is not justified by any compelling state interest, no amount of narrowing application will preserve it from constitutional attack. But even if Texas’s stated interests were the actual interests advanced by the statute—and even if they were compelling—the Court finds that H.B. 89 still sweeps too broadly."
Judge Pittman's extensive and detailed opinion then found that plaintiffs' additional First Amendment arguments — that the statute is an unconstitutional condition, that it was compelled speech, and that it was unconstitutionally vague — all had merit.
The constitutionality of anti-BDS statutes is being vigorously litigated and Judge Pittman's decision is sure to be appealed. The opinion's perspective on the popularity of anti-BDS statutes is quite interesting:
Twenty five states have enacted similar legislation or issued executive orders restricting boycotts of Israel, and Congress has declared its opposition to the BDS movement, see 19 U.S.C. § 4452. In Texas, only five legislators voted against H.B. 89. Texas touts these numbers as the statute’s strength. They are, rather, its weakness. “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” West Virginia State Bd. of Educ. v. Barnette (1943).
[some citations omitted].
Tuesday, April 23, 2019
Third Circuit Upholds Philadelphia's Refusal to Refer Foster Children to Organizations that Discriminates on Basis of Sexual Orientation
In its opinion in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a unanimous panel of the Third Circuit affirmed the district court's denial of a preliminary injunction against Philadelphia for stopping its referral of foster children to organizations that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation in their certification of foster parents.
Much of the litigation centers on Catholic Social Services (CSS) which will not certify same-sex couples, even those who are legally married to each other, as foster parents. Once Philadelphia became aware of the CSS policy, through investigative reporting, the city eventually suspended foster care referrals to CSS in accordance with the city's nondiscrimination policy which includes sexual orientation. The plaintiffs, including individuals about whom the Third Circuit had standing doubts, sued for a preliminary injunction, which the district judge denied after a three day hearing. On appeal, the Third Circuit agreed that the plaintiffs had not demonstrated a likelihood of success on their First Amendment claims under the Free Exercise Clause, as well as the Establishment Clause and the Speech Clause.
Writing for the panel, Judge Thomas Ambro wrote that the Free Exercise Clause does not relieve one from compliance with a neutral law of general applicability, which the court found the nondiscrimination law to be. Unlike Masterpiece Cakeshop Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission and Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. Hialeah (1993), there was no hostility towards religion evinced in the case. As the court stated:
CSS’s theme devolves to this: the City is targeting CSS because it discriminates against same-sex couples; CSS is discriminating against same-sex couples because of its religious beliefs; therefore the City is targeting CSS for its religious beliefs. But this syllogism is as flawed as it is dangerous. It runs directly counter to the premise of [Employment Division v. ] Smith that, while religious belief is always protected, religiously motivated conduct enjoys no special protections or exemption from general, neutrally applied legal requirements. That CSS’s conduct springs from sincerely held and strongly felt religious beliefs does not imply that the City’s desire to regulate that conduct springs from antipathy to those beliefs. If all comment on religiously motivated conduct by those enforcing neutral, generally applicable laws against discrimination is construed as ill will against the religious belief itself, then Smith is a dead letter, and the nation’s civil rights laws might be as well. As the Intervenors rightly state, the “fact that CSS’s non- compliance with the City’s non-discrimination requirements is based on its religious beliefs does not mean that the City’s enforcement of its requirements constitutes anti-religious hostility.”
On the Establishment Clause, Judge Ambro briefly concluded that there was no evidence that Philadelphia was attempting to impose its preferred version of Catholic teaching on CSS.
And in a similarly brief discussion of the free speech claim, Judge Ambro's opinion found there was no viable compelled speech claim or retaliation claim.
Finally, the Third Circuit opinion considered whether there was a possibly successful claim under Pennsylvania's RFRA statute and found that there was little chance of success on the merits, even given the higher standard of review.
This litigation has attracted much interest, with intervenors and amici, and the plaintiffs filed an emergency application to the Supreme Court for an injunction pending appeal or an immediate grant of certiorari in 2018, which was denied. Another certiorari petition is almost sure to follow the Third Circuit's decision.
April 23, 2019 in Establishment Clause, Family, Federalism, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Fundamental Rights, Gender, Opinion Analysis, Religion, Sexual Orientation, Sexuality, Speech, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)
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.