Monday, August 19, 2019

Missouri Federal Judge Finds State Representative Violated First Amendment by Twitter Blocking

In his opinion in Campbell v. Reisch, United States District Judge for the Western District of Missouri Brian Wimes found that a state representative violated the First Amendment rights of her constituent when she blocked him from commenting on her tweet on Twitter.

 Judge Wimes largely agreed with Knight First Amendment v. Trump, in which the Second Circuit, affirming the district court opinion, found that President Trump violated the First Amendment rights of those he blocked on Twitter.  Judge Wimes found that the plaintiff's speech was on a matter of public concern; Campbell was disputing a criticism by Representative Reisch arising from Reisch's criticism of her political opponent. Further, Judge Wimes found that the "interactive space" on the Twitter account is a designated public forum. Resich's blocking of the plaintiff because he disagreed with her was viewpoint discrimination prohibited by the First Amendment.

Lossy-page1-846px-Silence_Means_Security_-_NARA_-_515419.tifJudge Wimes' opinion considers the "color of state law" requirement under 42 U.S.C. §1983, like the state action requirement, met under this "fact intensive" analysis. The judge stated that the defendant controlled the interactive space of her twitter account in her "capacity as a state legislator." Further, she had " launched her Twitter account alongside her political campaign," her "handle references her elected district, and her Twitter account links to her campaign webpage," the  "image associated with Defendant’s Twitter account is a photo of her on the state house floor," and finally  she "used the Twitter account to tweet about her work as a public official."

Like Trump on Twitter, and the county legislator on Facebook in Davison v. Randall (& Loudoun County) decided by the Fourth Circuit, this opinion is another finding that elected officials cannot "curate" the comment sections on their social media posts. Although there is some authority to the contrary, the strong trend is a warning to warning to elected officials who attempt to silence their critics on social media. 

[image via]

August 19, 2019 in First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech, State Action Doctrine | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Ninth Circuit Rejects Challenge to Electioneering Disclosure Requirement

The Ninth Circuit ruled yesterday in National Association for Gun Rights, Inc. v. Mangan that Montana's electioneering disclosure requirements did not violate the First Amendment. The ruling keeps the requirements in place.

The Supreme Court has upheld disclosure requirements against First Amendment challenges, and so this ruling is really unremarkable. But at the same time it represents one in the next set of First Amendment challenges to campaign finance laws designed to spur this new Court to strike even more ways that government tries to regulate money in politics.

The case arose when the National Association for Gun Rights sought to spend more than $250 on an "electioneering communication." Montana law requires that any such organization register as a political committee. And such registration, in turn, subjects the group to requirements to disclosure expenditures.

The Association argued that the state's definition of electioneering communication was facially overbroad and unconstitutional as applied to it. In particular, the Association said that the First Amendment permits states to require disclosure only of express advocacy for or against a specific candidate, not the kind of general information that it sought to distribute.

The Ninth Circuit rejected the challenge. The court said that disclosure requirements are valid, even as to non-express-advocacy communications, because, under "exacting scrutiny," they are designed to promote the state's interests in transparency and discouraging circumvention of its electioneering laws.

August 13, 2019 in Campaign Finance, Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

District Court Tosses DNC's Case Against Russia, Trump Campaign for Hacking its Computers, Distributing Stolen Materials

Judge John G. Koeltl (S.D.N.Y.) today dismissed the Democratic National Committee's lawsuit against the Russian Federation, the Trump Campaign, and individuals associated with the campaign for hacking into DNC computers in the 2016 presidential election and distributing stolen material through WikiLeaks.

The ruling ends the case, unless and until the DNC appeals.

The DNC brought the case under a variety of federal statutes, including RICO, and state common law trespass and conversion. The DNC alleged that Russia unlawfully hacked DNC computers and distributed stolen material, and that this benefited the Trump campaign, which "welcomed" the help.

The court dismissed the claims against Russia under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. (The court said that exceptions to the FSIA don't apply because not all of Russia's activities occurred within the United States.) It dismissed the claims against the other defendants under the First Amendment. Here's the short version why:

the First Amendment prevents such liability in the same way [under Bartnicki v. Vopper, ed.] it would preclude liability for press outlets that publish materials of public interest despite defects in the way the materials were obtained so long as the disseminator did not participate in any wrongdoing in obtaining the materials in the first place. The plausible allegations against the remaining defendants are insufficient to hold them liable for the illegality that occurred in obtaining the materials from the DNC.

So what about all the contacts between the defendants: Don't they show that the defendants "participated in wrongdoing"? The court said no: the DNC simply didn't plead sufficient facts to show this. 

The court rejected the DNC's attempt to distinguish or work around Bartnicki, ruling that the case doesn't permit a challenge for stolen trade secrets, or for "after-the-fact" coconspiracy to steal the documents.

The court ruled that there were other reasons to dismiss the case, based on some of the specific causes of action.

 

July 30, 2019 in Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 12, 2019

Fourth Circuit: Non-Disparagement Clause in Police Misconduct Settlement Violates First Amendment

In its opinion in Overbey v. Mayor & City Council of Baltimore, the Fourth Circuit held that non-disparagement clauses in settlement of police misconduct claims violates the First Amendment.

Writing for the majority, Judge Henry Floyd, described the non-disparagement clauses that the Baltimore Police Department inserted in 95% of its settlement agreements. Here, Ashley Overbey sued the city for being arrested in her home when she called 911 to report a burglary, resulting in a settlement of $63,000, complete with the usual non-disparagement provision. The Baltimore Sun newspaper reported on the settlement as it went before a city agency for approval, including a negative comment about Overbey from the City Solicitor, and the reporting prompted some anonymous on-line comments, to which Overbey responded online. The City decided that Overbey's online comments violated the non-disparagement clause and thus remitted only half of the settlement amount, retaining $31,500 as "liquidated damages."

The court found that the settlement agreement included a waiver of Overbey's First Amendment rights (rejecting the City's argument that the First Amendment was not implicated by refraining from speaking), and further held that the waiver was "outweighed by a relevant public policy that would be harmed by enforcement." The court rejected the city's arguments, including a fairness argument that the court should enforce Overbey's sale of her speech rights:

Essentially, the City argues that half of Overbey’s settlement sum was earmarked for her silence, and that it would be unfair for Overbey to collect that half of her money when she was not, in fact, silent. When the second half of Overbey’s settlement sum is viewed in this light, it is difficult to see what distinguishes it from hush money. Needless to say, this does not work in the City’s favor. We have never ratified the government’s purchase of a potential critic’s silence merely because it would be unfair to deprive the government of the full value of its hush money. We are not eager to get into that business now.

The court thus reversed the district judge's grant of summary judgment to the city. It's opinion clearly held that "the non-disparagement clause in Overbey's settlement agreement amounts to a waiver of her First Amendment rights and that strong public interests rooted in the First Amendment make it unenforceable and void."

The court also considered the First Amendment claim of the other plaintiff, Baltimore Brew, a local news website, which the district judge had dismissed for lack of standing. The court held that Brew had standing based on its complaint's allegations regarding the City's pervasive use of non-disparagement clauses in settlements with police brutality claimants as it "impedes the ability of the press generally and Baltimore Brew specifically, to fully carry out the important role the press plays in informing the public about government actions." The court stressed that its conclusion was based on the allegations in the complaint and that the evidentiary record should be developed by the district judge.

Hush_money-or_money_for_the_sewer_-_Frank_Beard._LCCN96514370_(cropped)
Dissenting, recent appointee to the bench Judge Marvin Quattlebaum stated that since Overbey entered into the settlement agreement voluntarily — a question the majority stated it need not resolve given its conclusion regarding public interest — the courts should enforce it. The defendants, the dissenting judge argued, have an interest in finality, the certainty of their contract, and gave up their "opportunity for vindication by a judge or jury" and are thus entitled to have the non-
disparagement clause enforced.  In a footnote, the dissenting judge found the "hush money" by the majority as "harsh words," suggesting that a better view is that the plaintiff "cannot have her cake and eat it too."

[image: "hush money" circa 1883 via]

 

July 12, 2019 in Criminal Procedure, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Second Circuit: "RealDonaldTrump" Blocking Users on Twitter Violates First Amendment

In its opinion in Knight First Amendment v. Trump, the Second Circuit ruled that the "First Amendment does not permit a public official who utilizes a social media account for all manner of official purposes to exclude persons from an otherwise-open dialogue because they expressed views with which the official disagrees."  The case arose from challenges to the President, Donald J. Trump, blocking users on Twitter. Recall that United States District Judge for the Southern District of New York, Naomi Reice Buchwald, issued a 75 page opinion based on the parties motions for summary judgment (and stipulated facts) concluding that found that the President's Twitter account, @realdonaldtrump, is in violation of the First Amendment when it blocks other Twitter users based on their political views. A unanimous panel of the Second Circuit affirms that decision.

The Second Circuit opinion, authored by Judge Barrington Parker, first considered the state action threshold. The government attorneys interestingly represented the President to argue that his account is nongovernmental. The court rejected the government attorneys' position that while the @realdonaldtrump Twitter account is not independent of Trump's presidency, that the specific act of blocking should not be considered state action. Further, the Second Circuit rejected the argument that because the person of Donald Trump established the account before becoming President and will retain control after he leaves the presidency, the @realdonaldtrump account must be considered "private" and not subject to the First Amendment: "the fact that government control over property is temporary, or that the government does not 'own' the property in the sense that it holds title to the property, is not determinative." The court stated:

The government’s contention that the President’s use of the Account during his presidency is private founders in the face of the uncontested evidence in the record of substantial and pervasive government involvement with, and control over, the Account. First, the Account is presented by the President and the White House staff as belonging to, and operated by, the President. The Account is registered to “Donald J. Trump, ‘45th President of the United States of America, Washington, D.C.’” The President has described his use of the Account as “MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL.” The White House social media director has described the Account as a channel through which “President Donald J. Trump . . . [c]ommunicat[es] directly with you, the American people!” The @WhiteHouse account, an undoubtedly official Twitter account run by the government, “directs Twitter users to ‘Follow for the latest from @POTUS @realDonaldTrump and his Administration.” Further, the @POTUS account frequently republishes tweets from the Account. As discussed earlier, according to the National Archives and Records Administration, the President’s tweets from the Account “are official records that must be preserved under the Presidential Records Act.”

Second, since becoming President he has used the Account on almost a daily basis “as a channel for communicating and interacting with the public about his administration.” The President utilizes White House staff to post tweets and to maintain the Account. He uses the Account to announce “matters related to official government business,” including high‐level White House and cabinet‐level staff changes as well as changes to major national policies. He uses the Account to engage with foreign leaders and to announce foreign policy decisions and initiatives. Finally, he uses the “like,” “retweet,” “reply,” and other functions of the Account to understand and to evaluate the public’s reaction to what he says and does. In sum, since he took office, the President has consistently used the Account as an important tool of governance and executive outreach. For these reasons, we conclude that the factors pointing to the public, non‐private nature of the Account and its interactive features are overwhelming.

Trump_twitter
The court then proceeded to the merits of the First Amendment claim, finding that viewpoint discrimination violates the First Amendment. Interestingly, it is for this proposition and only this one that the court cites the United States Supreme Court's closely divided case from last month, Manhattan Community Access Corp. v. Halleck. The Second Circuit easily finds the account creates a public forum. The Second Circuit noted that the government did not contest the district judge's conclusion that the plaintiffs were engaged in protected speech, but the government argued that the plaintiffs' speech was not burdened by being blocked. While the court stated that the government was correct that the plaintiffs did not have a First Amendment right to have the president listen to them, 

the speech restrictions at issue burden the Individual Plaintiffs’ ability to converse on Twitter with others who may be speaking to or about the President. President Trump is only one of thousands of recipients of the messages the Individual Plaintiffs seek to communicate. While he is certainly not required to listen, once he opens up the interactive features of his account to the public at large he is not entitled to censor selected users because they express views with which he disagrees.

The court also rejected the government's position that the plaintiffs should employ "workarounds" such as creating new accounts, in large part because the government itself conceded that such workarounds burdened speech.

Finally, the Second Circuit rejected the argument that the Twitter account is government speech and thus not subject to the First Amendment. The court stated that while the president's initial tweets are government speech, the interactive features are decidedly not:

Considering the interactive features, the speech in question is that of multiple individuals, not just the President or that of the government. When a Twitter user posts a reply to one of the President’s tweets, the message is identified as coming from that user, not from the President. There is no record evidence, and the government does not argue, that the President has attempted to exercise any control over the messages of others, except to the extent he has blocked some persons expressing viewpoints he finds distasteful. The contents of retweets, replies, likes, and mentions are controlled by the user who generates them and not by the President, except to the extent he attempts to do so by blocking. Accordingly, while the President’s tweets can accurately be described as government speech, the retweets, replies, and likes of other users in response to his tweets are not government speech under any formulation.

The Second Circuit ends with what might be considered a chastisement:

The irony in all of this is that we write at a time in the history of this nation when the conduct of our government and its officials is subject to wide‐open, robust debate. This debate encompasses an extraordinarily broad range of ideas and viewpoints and generates a level of passion and intensity the likes of which have rarely been seen. This debate, as uncomfortable and as unpleasant as it frequently may be, is nonetheless a good thing. In resolving this appeal, we remind the litigants and the public that if the First Amendment means anything, it means that the best response to disfavored speech on matters of public concern is more speech, not less.

July 9, 2019 in Executive Authority, Executive Privilege, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 27, 2019

SCOTUS Finds Partisan Gerrymandering Non-Justiciable Political Question

In its opinion in Rucho v. Common Cause, consolidated with Lamone v. Benisek, a sharply divided United States Supreme Court decided that the judicial branch has no role to play in challenges to redistricting based upon partisan gerrymandering.

Recall that Rucho involved the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering in North Carolina. The major question raised by the arguments was whether the courts have any role in protecting voters from partisan gerrymandering; Recall also that in an almost 200 page opinion, the three judge court resolved the issues of justiciability and standing in favor of the plaintiffs and held that the redistricting violated equal protection. 
Recall that Lamone involved the constitutionality of partisan gerrymandering in Maryland. The oral argument centered the First Amendment, but equal protection doctrine did surface in the context of comparing racial gerrymandering which is analyzed under the Equal Protection Clause. 

And also recall that while the Court had previously taken on the issue of partisan gerrymandering, it dodged answering the ultimate question. Today, the Court's 5-4 decision makes that dodge permanent for all federal courts by holding that the questions is a nonjusticiable political question.

1024px-The_Gerry-Mander_EditWriting for the Court, Chief Justice Roberts — joined by Justices Thomas, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh — held that challenges to partisan gerrymandering involve a political question because they lack “judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving them, citing Baker v. Carr (1962).  The majority then rejects all the "tests" (quotation marks in original) for resolving the issue. (Recall that Chief Justice Roberts's expressed skepticism about developing standards in the oral arguments on an earlier partisan redistricting case, Gill v. Whitford, calling the political science of redistricting "gobbledygook").  It is not that there is no relief, the majority concludes.  While partisan gerrymandering is "incompatible with democratic principles," as the Court had previously stated in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Comm’n (2015), and the majority opinion "does not condone excessive partisan gerrymandering," the remedy is in the state courts. Or Congress might pass a law to address the matter, citing as an example the Fairness and Independence in Redistricting Act Bill, although the Court does not express a view on this or other pending proposals.

In dissent, Justice Kagan — joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor — begins by stating "For the first time ever, this Court refuses to remedy a constitutional violation because it thinks it is beyond its judicial capabilities."  Kagan's impassioned dissent, as long as the majority opinion, and parts of which she read from the bench (a rare practice for her), explains that democracy is at stake and if "left unchecked, gerrymanders like the ones here may irreparably damage our system of government.  The dissenting opinion suggests that the majority has not paid sufficient attention to the constitutional harms at the core of these cases, and discusses the cases, concluding that no one thinks this is how democracy should work, and that in the past the Court has recognized the infringement to individual rights partisan gerrymandering inflicts.  As for standards, the four dissenters argue that courts have developed a framework for analyzing claims of partisan gerrymandering, including the workable standard the three judge courts in Rucho and Lamone used.  As for state courts, Kagan's opinion asks "what do those courts know that this Court cannot? If they can develop and apply neutral and manageable standards to identify unconstitutional gerrymanders, why couldn't we?"

Given that former-Justice Kennedy had a central role in arguing for a First Amendment right to challenge partisan gerrymandering, his retirement and replacement by Justice Kavanaugh made the majority for an opinion that Chief Justice Roberts had seemingly long wanted.

 

June 27, 2019 in Elections and Voting, Equal Protection, First Amendment, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, Opinion Analysis, Standing, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 24, 2019

SCOTUS Declares Lanham Act Provision Barring "Immoral" or "Scandulous" Trademarks Violates First Amendment

In its opinion in Iancu v. Brunetti the United States Supreme Court held that 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, violates the First Amendment.

Recall from the oral argument its centerpiece was the applicability of the Court's recent decision in Matal v. Tam (2017) which held that the disparagement provision in Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1052(a) violated the First Amendment.  Justice Kagan's relatively brief — 11 pages — opinion for the Court begins with a citation to Tam and then states, "We hold that this provision infringes the First Amendment for the same reason: It too disfavors certain ideas."

At issue in Brunetti was a fashion line, which as Kagan explains:

uses the trademark FUCT. According to Brunetti, the mark (which functions as the clothing’s brand name) is pronounced as four letters, one after the other: F-U-C-T. But you might read it differently and, if so, you would hardly be alone. See Tr. of Oral Arg. 5 (describing the brand name as “the equivalent of [the] past participle form of a well-known word of profanity”). That common perception caused difficulties for Brunetti when he tried to register his mark with the U. S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO).

Justice Kagan's opinion for the Court found the "immoral or scandalous" ban to be viewpoint-based with a viewpoint-discriminatory application. Kagan provides some examples of the inconsistencies, including the PTO refusing to register a trademark "Madonna" for wine while allowing "Praise the Lord" for a game.  Further, the Court stated, the "immoral or scandalous" bar is "overly broad."

Justices Thomas, Ginsburg, Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh joined in Kagan's opinion. But Alito wrote very briefly separately, disavowing the label of "moral relativism" that might be applied to the Court's opinion and making clear that Congress could adopt a more narrow statute. The other Justices wrote separate opinions concurring in part and dissenting in part.

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The major dissenting opinion, by Justice Sotomayor concurring in part and dissenting in part, focuses on the "scandalous" provision, arguing that the Court's opinion means that the United States will have no choice but to begin registering marks "containing the most vulgar, profane, or obscene words and images imaginable." Sotomayor's opinion, joined by Breyer, and echoed in Chief Justice Roberts's opinion also dissenting in part, is longer than the Court's opinion, and argues that the Court should have accepted the narrowing construction of "scandalous" — "interpreting it to regulate only obscenity, vulgarity, and profanity" — which would save it from unconstitutionality. Sotomayor also discusses the special context of trademarks, which while not government speech, do have a type of governmental involvement.  It is not that the speech is being prohibited, but only that the Lanham Act prohibited registration of the trademark.

[image: Kagan and Sotomayor, via]

June 24, 2019 in First Amendment, Speech, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 20, 2019

SCOTUS Decides Large Cross on Public Land in Maryland Does Not Violate Establishment Clause

In its fractured opinions in The American Legion v. American Humanist Association (consolidated with Maryland-National Park and Planning Commission v. American Humanist Association), a majority of the Court concluded that a 32 foot high "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., originally erected in 1919 to honor the dead of World War I, does not violate the Establishment Clause.

Recall that during oral argument, one question was whether the cross should be evaluated by applying Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) or whether it should be deemed more of a "passive monument" under Van Orden v. Perry (2005). Recall also that in the Fourth Circuit decision finding the cross violated the Establishment Clause, the majority found that the passive monument rule of the plurality in Van Orden v. Perry was not conclusive and stressed that the well-established Lemon test remained a "useful guidepost." 

Writing for the majority, Justice Alito's opinion was joined by the Chief Justice, and Justices Breyer, Kagan, and Kavanaugh. However, two portions of Justice Alito's opinion garnered only a plurality: Kagan did not join sections §IIA and §IID, the first essentially involving a critique of Lemon's usefulness and the second relying upon the divided town counsel prayer case of Town of Greece  to conclude that "categories of monuments, symbols, and practices with a longstanding history" are constitutional.  Breyer — who wrote an important concurring opinion in the passive monument case of Van Orden — wrote a separate concurring opinion in which Kagan joined. Justice Thomas concurred in the judgment, again arguing that the Establishment Clause is not incorporated as against the states. Justice Gorsuch also wrote a separate concurring opinion, arguing that the plaintiffs had no standing based on their status as "offended observers" and contending Lemon should be "shelved" and was a "misadventure." While joining Justice Alito's opinion in full, Kavanaugh also concurred separately to reprise a critique of Lemon as inconsistent with by the Court's decisions in five categories of Establishment Clause cases.  Ginsburg wrote a dissenting opinion, joined by Sotomayor.

So what does the majority "hold"? Alito's opinion for the majority concludes that this specific cross "carries special significance in commemorating World War I," which it had at the time of its erection and "acquired additional layers of historical meaning in subsequent years" and has become "part of the community." Certainly, "the cross originated as a Christian symbol and retains that meaning in many contexts," but this "does not change the fact that the symbol took on added secular meaning when used in World War I memorials." Alito's opinion specifically rejected arguments that the cross "disrespected" Jewish or Black veterans, and specifically mentions that "one of the local leaders responsible" for the cross was a "Jewish veteran" and that the memorial includes the names of black and white soldiers. Recall that this had been broached in the oral argument, with Justice Alito asking counsel: "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?" 

Image GinsburgJustice Ginsburg, dissenting in a 21 page opinion including an appendix of images (including the headstones in a military cemetery, right) joined by Sotomayor, disputed the cross as a secular symbol. "Just as the Star of David is not suitable to honor Christians who died serving their country, so a cross is not suitable to honor those of other faiths who died defending their nation."  Disputing the contention that the Latin cross is a well-established secular symbol commemorating World War I military casualties, Ginsburg relates disputes in the War Department in 1919, arguing that everyone involved "saw the Latin cross as a Christian symbol, not a universal or secular one." A true secular symbol was the "mass-produced Spirit of the American Doughboy statute," of which there was one in Prince George's county, the cross being an "aberration" even at the time.  Ginsburg confronts the slippery slope argument that a contrary decision would eliminate all commemorative crosses by arguing that the in the context of a cemetery, individual markers are acceptable because they convey individuality rather than government endorsement, and that in this case, the solution could be a transfer of the cross to private rather than government property.

The decision leaves lower courts and advocates in the same doctrinal landscape that they inhabited before, although with an even clearer message that longstanding religious monuments with religious symbols, no matter how imposing, will be upheld under the Establishment Clause.

June 20, 2019 in Establishment Clause, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Reproductive Rights | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 17, 2019

SCOTUS: No State Action in First Amendment Challenge to Public Access Channel

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.

June 17, 2019 in Federalism, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Opinion Analysis, State Action Doctrine, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 7, 2019

Washington Supreme Court on Remand in Arlene's Flowers: No First Amendment Violation

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.

Van_Gogh_-_Zwölf_Sonnenblumen_in_einer_Vase1The 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)

Seventh Circuit Upholds Ballot Access Requirement

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).

The Seventh Circuit rejected the claim. Applying the Anderson-Burdick balancing test, the court said that strict scrutiny was far too high a standard, and that the government easily met it:

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.

June 7, 2019 in Cases and Case Materials, Elections and Voting, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Federal District Judge Finds Anti-Riot Act Violates First Amendment

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.

Riot-Act-Web

 

June 5, 2019 in Current Affairs, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Race, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Does the Superseding Assange Indictment Implicate the First Amendment?

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).

848px-JAssangeThe 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.

 

[image via]

 

May 23, 2019 in First Amendment, Foreign Affairs, News, Scholarship, Speech, State Secrets | Permalink | Comments (0)

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.

May 20, 2019 in Campaign Finance, Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, First Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, Second Amendment, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 13, 2019

SCOTUS Denies Certiorari Over Dissent in Prisoner Grievance First Amendment Challenge

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.”

3760642768_132b6d3402_bAccording to the dissenters, the subsequent grievance "repeated much of the original language, adding, “[i]t is no wonder why guards are slapped and strangled by some prisoners.”"

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.

image via

May 13, 2019 in First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, April 26, 2019

Federal Judge Enjoins Texas anti-BDS Statute as Violative of First Amendment

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].

 

 

April 26, 2019 in Eleventh Amendment, Federalism, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Race, Speech, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0)

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

Fifth Circuit Rule for Plaintiff in Free Speech Challenge to Sheriff Office Facebook Page

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.

April 20, 2019 in First Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Fourth Circuit Rebuffs Rastafarian-Prisoner's Claim for Communal Feasts

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). 

April 17, 2019 in Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, News, Opinion Analysis, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, April 15, 2019

SCOTUS Hears Oral Argument on Scandalous or Immoral Trademarks

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.

128px-Seal_of_the_United_States_Patent_and_Trademark_Office.svgIndeed, 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.

April 15, 2019 in Current Affairs, First Amendment, Gender, Oral Argument Analysis, Race, Speech, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)