Friday, December 2, 2022
The Supreme Court will hear arguments on Monday in 303 Creative v. Elenis, the case testing whether a website designer's free-speech claim trumps a state's anti-discrimination law. Here's my Preview, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, with permission:
The First Amendment prohibits government from compelling speech, and from regulating speech based on its content and viewpoint. But on the other hand, the First Amendment allows the government to regulate conduct, even if the regulation has an incidental effect on speech, so long as the regulation is unrelated to the expression of ideas. And it allows the government more freedom to regulate commercial speech. This case pits these First Amendment principles against each other.
Can a website designer refuse to create a website for a same-sex wedding, even though state law prohibits discrimination by sexual orientation?
Lorie Smith is a graphic artist and website designer. She is the sole owner of 303 Creative, her custom design studio, where she provides website and graphic design, branding, marketing strategy, and social-media management services to her clients.
Smith will serve any client, regardless of race, creed, sexual orientation, or gender. But she will not create content that contradicts her Christian beliefs. So, for example, she “will decline any request—no matter who makes it—to create content that contradicts the truths of the Bible, demeans or disparages someone, promotes atheism or gambling, endorses the taking of unborn life, incites violence, or promotes a concept of marriage that is not solely the union of one man and one woman.”
Smith expanded her portfolio to include custom wedding content and websites. According to Smith, “[e]very one of [her] wedding websites will not only express messages about the beauty and eternal commitment of the couples, but will also express approval of the couple’s marriage.” Smith designed a sample of a wedding website that includes a Bible passage, but the website doesn’t otherwise reflect the content of potential future websites. Smith says that her websites will bear a notice that reads, “Designed by 303Creative.com.”
Smith also designed a 303 Creative website page that announced her new wedding services. The design includes a statement that God is calling Smith “to explain His true story about marriage, and to use the talents and business He gave [Smith] to publicly proclaim and celebrate His design for marriage as a life-long union between one man and one woman.” The statement goes on:
These same religious convictions that motivate me also prevent me from creating websites promoting and celebrating ideas or messages that violate my beliefs. So I will not be able to create websites for same-sex marriages or any other marriage that is not between one man and one woman. Doing that would compromise my Christian witness and tell a story about marriage that contradicts God’s true story of marriage—the very story He is calling me to promote.
Smith says that she “cannot yet share that message,” however, because “Colorado forbids it on pain of investigation, fines, and re-education.” Smith is referring to two provisions in the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, or CADA. The first, the Accommodations Clause, prohibits businesses that sell or offer services “to the public” from discriminating based on “disability, race, creed, color, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, or ancestry.” The second, the Communications Clause, prohibits businesses from “display[ing]” a “notice” that “indicates that the full and equal enjoyment of the goods [or] services . . . will be refused, withheld from, or denied an individual or that an individual’s patronage or presence at a place of public accommodation is unwelcome, objectionable, unacceptable, or undesirable” based on a protected characteristic.
Smith brought a pre-enforcement challenge to CADA and sought an injunction halting its enforcements. She alleged that the two provisions violated her free-speech rights because they would require her to create websites for same-sex weddings. The district court ruled against Smith, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed. This appeal followed.
This case involves several different free-speech doctrines, and pits them against each other. On the one hand, the compelled-speech doctrine says that the government cannot require individuals to communicate a message they do not wish to communicate. In addition, the general rule against content- and viewpoint-based restrictions says that any government regulation of speech based on the content or the viewpoint of the speech must be narrowly tailored to meet a compelling government interest. (That test is called “strict scrutiny.”)
On the other hand, the conduct-as-speech doctrine allows the government to regulate speech that is incidental to conduct at a lower level of scrutiny (“intermediate scrutiny”), so long as the regulation is not related to the expression of ideas. Moreover, the commercial-speech doctrine allows the government to regulate speech promoting a commercial exchange also at a lower level of scrutiny.
The parties frame their arguments around these competing doctrines.
Smith argues first that CADA compels her to speak in violation of the First Amendment. She says that her wedding websites amount to “pure speech,” and that CADA, by requiring her to create websites for weddings that contradict her beliefs, impermissibly compels her to speak in violation of her free-speech rights.
Smith points to Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston, 515 U.S. 557 (1995), in support of her claim. The Court in that case ruled that the First Amendment allowed the organizers of a public parade celebrating Irish heritage to exclude an LGBTQ+ group, even though anti-discrimination law prohibited the organizers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. Smith says that under Hurley when an anti-discrimination law “makes ‘speech itself . . . the public accommodation,’ and forces someone to ‘alter’ their ‘expressive content,’ the government must satisfy strict scrutiny,” which it cannot do here. According to Smith, Hurley applies squarely to her case: “CADA makes an artist’s speech the accommodation, and Colorado’s application of the law to an artist like Smith forces her to alter her expressive content in untenable ways.”
Smith contends that she does not lose her free-speech rights just because she creates speech as part of her business. She says that CADA’s application to her speech is not “incidental” to her conduct; instead, CADA directly regulates her “pure speech.” Moreover, she claims that she is not a “passive conduit” for her client’s messages; instead, she creates the messages herself, and “retains final editorial control over them.” Smith claims this is “[her] speech and her message.”
Smith argues next that CADA’s two provisions impermissibly regulate her speech based on its content and its viewpoint. She says that both provisions require her to promote content and a viewpoint that she finds objectionable—any marriage other than one between one man and one woman. Smith claims that CADA does not serve a compelling interest in enforcing the two provisions, because, while a state may have a general interest in protecting equal access to the marketplace, it has no compelling interest in “ensuring [general] access to a particular person’s unique, artistic product.” Moreover, she contends that CADA is not narrowly tailored, because the state “has numerous, less burdensome alternatives to achieve any legitimate interests it might articulate.” For example, Smith says that “Colorado could interpret CADA to allow speakers who serve all people to decline specific projects based on their message,” it could “enact textual exemptions for artists who decline projects based on their messages,” it could exempt services for the “wedding industry,” or it could limit CADA’s reach to “physical spaces.”
Finally, Smith argues that neither the anti-discrimination context nor the topic of marriage “justifies an exception to th[e] cardinal rule” that government cannot “violate artists’ freedom of conscience or compel them to ‘mouth support for views they find objectionable.’”
The state counters that CADA regulates Smith’s business, not her speech. The state says that a business like 303 Creative can decide for itself what it would like to sell. A business can even define its services quite narrowly, for example, “only websites that include biblical quotes describing marriage as the union of one man and one woman.” But the state contends that once a business decides what to sell, CADA requires the business to sell “to all without regard to a customer’s protected characteristic.” In other words, according to the state, CADA regulates sales, not the services or products sold. And “it does not prohibit or compel the speech of any business.”
Moreover, the state says that CADA does not regulate expressive conduct. According to the state, “[r]outine commercial transactions do not become expressive conduct just because the business believes a sale would convey approval of the buyer.” But to the extent that the Court “needs to consider the content of the Company’s websites to determine whether the Company will deny equal access to its services,” the state says that the case is not yet ripe for judicial review. According to the state, that’s because nobody has asked Smith to create a website for a same-sex marriage (although Smith claims that she received an inquiry), and the state has not required her to create such a website.
The state argues next that even if the Accommodations Clause burdens Smith’s speech, the burden is “incidental,” that is, not related to the expression of Smith’s ideas. As such, the state says that the Clause is subject to a lower level of review, intermediate scrutiny, and easily passes.
But even if the Court were to apply strict scrutiny, the state argues that the Accommodations Clause passes muster. The state claims that it has a compelling interest “in ensuring equal access to publicly available goods and services”—an interest that is “rooted in this nation’s history and traditions, which has long recognized both the material and dignitary harms of the denial of service.” Moreover, the state contends that the Accommodations Clause is narrowly tailored to meet this interest, because “[i]t targets only specific commercial conduct: the discriminatory sale of products and services by businesses open to the public.” The state contends that Smith’s proposed exemptions (which purport to show why CADA is not narrowly tailored) “would upend antidiscrimination law—and other laws too”—by “depart[ing] from this Court’s doctrine and creat[ing] an enforcement regime riddled with uncertainty and inconsistency.”
Finally, as to the Communications Clause, the state argues that “[i]t prohibits only commercial speech that facilitates illegal conduct—expression that receives no free speech protection.” The state says that the Communications Clause does not prohibit Smith from expressing her views; it only prohibits her from advertising that she will deny equal access to her services.
The government weighed in as amicus to support the state. It makes substantially similar arguments.
If this case seems familiar, that’s because it is. Ever since states started to recognize same-sex marriages, wedding-service providers have challenged state anti-discrimination laws as violating their rights to free exercise of religion and free speech. The Court famously ruled in one of these cases just four years ago. In Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, 584 (U.S.)__ (2018), the Court ruled that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s application of CADA—the same CADA that’s at issue in this case—violated a cakebaker’s free-exercise right to refuse to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. The Court held that some of the commissioners’ statements reflected anti-religious animus against the cakebaker, and therefore the Commission’s ruling against the cakebaker violated the Free Exercise Clause.
This case is the fully anticipated follow-up to Masterpiece. But unlike Masterpiece, this case comes to the Court as a free-speech case. (The cake-baker in Masterpiece also raised a free-speech claim, but the Court did not take it up.) It thus gives the Court yet another chance to test individual constitutional rights against a state’s anti-discrimination laws, albeit under a different doctrine.
As a free-speech case, 303 Creative will force the Court to navigate some distinctive landmines with roundly discredited historical antecedents. For example, Smith’s proposed statement echoes and amplifies earlier statements by many commercial establishments that they will not serve individuals of a particular race, ethnicity, or nationality. Similarly, Smith’s proposed exception from anti-discrimination laws echoes and amplifies earlier statements by many commercial establishments and individuals that they have a free-speech or free-association right to discriminate, anti-discrimination laws notwithstanding.
Smith tries to provide the Court with a roadmap through these landmines. She does this by focusing narrowly on her work as an “artist” with a creative message (and not just an ordinary business), who proposes to work in a particular area, weddings, where views can be strong and mixed. It’s not at all clear that Smith’s roadmap actually dodges the landmines, though. As the state contends, her efforts to narrow her case and distinguish her work may simply create confusion and uncertainty as to the application of anti-discrimination law.
This could mean that any ruling for Smith would open the door wide for other exemptions from anti-discrimination laws. For example, even a narrow ruling for Smith could invite other individuals and businesses to cast themselves as “artists,” or define their work as serving a particular market that is inextricably tied up with speech. (It’s easy to see how any variety of individuals and businesses could lodge these claims.) It could also invite individuals and businesses to seek exemptions from anti-discrimination laws for those discredited historical practices, mentioned above. Given the nature of this case (in contrast to Masterpiece, where there was a record of enforcement), there may be no obvious way for the Court to rule for Smith while not effectively drilling a tunnel through anti-discrimination laws.
One final observation. The Court’s jurisprudence in this area—testing First Amendment rights against anti-discrimination laws—seems to treat laws protecting against LGBTQ+ discrimination less favorably than it treats laws protecting against other kinds of discrimination. The Court doesn’t specifically acknowledge this, however, much less provide a principled reason for the difference.
If the Court rules for Smith, it may have to say that quiet part out loud. In other words, it may have to explain why free speech protects Smith’s statements that she won’t create websites for same-sex weddings, even if free speech would not protect her statements that she won’t create websites for, say, Black weddings. Any attempt to explain this difference could prove exceedingly embarrassing (and uncomfortably revealing) for the Court. Yet a ruling for Smith without this explanation will simply invite the next inevitable case, testing whether free-speech protects a business’s announcement that they will not serve Black people.
The Ninth Circuit this week rebuffed a challenge to California's recall process. The ruling means that the process stays in place.
The case, Clark v. Weber, arose when a voter who opposed the recall of Governor Newsom argued that the state's recall process violated the Constitution. Under the process, voters first vote whether to recall the official. If a majority votes to recall, the official is recalled. Voters next vote for a replacement (in case the first vote results in a recall). Any candidate for replacement who gets a plurality wins (again, assuming that the first vote results in a recall). The incumbent cannot run as a candidate in that second vote.
Clark argued that the process violated one-person-one-vote, because, as a Newsom supporter, he only had one vote (in the first part of the process), whereas voters who opposed Newsom had two votes. He also argued that an incumbent must receive a majority to stay in office, whereas a challenger needs to get only a plurality.
The court rejected both theories. The court said that California's process is really two separate elections run together, and that everyone gets a vote in both. To the extent that Clark's choices don't include the incumbent in the second election, the court said that this wasn't a severe restriction on the right to vote. (The court analogized the exclusion of the incumbent to term-limit laws, which the courts have upheld). The court said that the state easily justified this restriction based on its important interest in maintaining the efficacy of its recall procedure.
The Second Circuit ruled this week that University of Connecticut officials enjoyed qualified immunity from a UConn soccer player's free-speech and due process claims after the officials terminated the player's scholarship for raising her middle finger on camera after a nationally broadcast game. At the same time, the court ruled that there was sufficient evidence to allow the player's Title IX claim to move forward.
The case, Radwan v. Manuel, arose when Noriana Radwan, a UConn soccer player, raised her middle finger on camera after a nationally televised game. UConn officials suspended her from further tournament play and later revoked her one-year scholarship. Radwan sued, arguing that the move violated the First Amendment, due process, and Title IX.
The Second Circuit ruled that UConn officials enjoyed qualified immunity against the free-speech claim, because "the right of a student-athlete at a university, while in public and on the playing field, to make a vulgar or offensive comment or gesture without suffering disciplinary consequences" wasn't clearly established. The court explained:
Although we agree that the Supreme Court has suggested that its analyses in addressing the First Amendment in the public elementary and high school settings (including Hazelwood and Fraser) may not apply equally to the university setting, neither the Supreme Court nor any circuit court has yet provided an alternative legal standard or framework to help university administrators discern the precise constitutional line in such circumstances, especially when the student engages in speech while wearing the university's uniform as part of an extracurricular activity.
As to the due process claim, the court held that a fixed-term athletic scholarship terminable only for cause gave rise to a constitutionally protected property right. But it said that this right wasn't clearly established when officials revoked Radwan's scholarship.
The court ruled for Radwan on her Title IX claim, however, saying that "taken as a whole and construed most favorably to Radwan as the non-moving party, [the evidence] is sufficient to create genuine issues of material fact as to whether Radwan received a more serious disciplinary sanction at UConn because of her gender." That's not a final ruling on the Title IX claim; it only allows the claim to move forward.
The Eighth Circuit ruled this week that a county jail's policy of holding otherwise releasable detainees based on their nation of birth violated equal protection.
The case, Parada v. Anoka County, tested the county jail's policy of holding every otherwise releasable detainee born outside the United States until jail authorities contacted ICE. The wait could last between 20 minutes and 6 hours.
The Eighth Circuit said the policy violated equal protection. That's because it discriminates based on nation of birth, far too rough a cut to satisfy the strict scrutiny standard that applies when government discriminates by national origin. The court noted that the county could have detained persons based on citizenship, instead, a classification that's both neutral with regard to national origin and a closer fit to the county's objectives.
While the court assumed for the purpose of analysis that the county's interest in its policy was "compelling," the court also expressed "doubts about it." It wrote, "Anoka County makes no suggestion it has an interest in stemming the tide of illegal immigration. It instead frames its interest as giving 'ICE an opportunity to investigate the legal status of individuals who [are] already in custody' without 'overburden[ing]' the agency by passing along too many false positives."
Thursday, December 1, 2022
The Supreme Court today agreed to hear a case challenging the Biden Administration's federal student loan forgiveness program. The case comes to the Court on the government's application to vacate the injunction halting the program entered by the Eighth Circuit. We last posted here.
The Court will hear oral argument on the program in February. In the meantime, the Eighth Circuit's injunction stays in place. The Court gave no clue as to its thinking on the merits in its brief order.
Judge Emmet G. Sullivan (D.D.C.) ruled this week that former President Donald Trump does not have absolute immunity from a civil-damage lawsuit for his behavior related to the insurrection on January 6. The ruling came in an order granting the plaintiffs' motion to file a second amended complaint in a lawsuit against Trump and others for interfering with the electoral count. In other words, it's not a final ruling on the merits; it just means that portions of the case against Trump can move forward.
The court held that Trump's activities leading up to and on January 6 in an effort to disrupt the electoral count were not within the "outer perimeter" of his official duties as president, and therefore, under Nixon v. Fitzgerald, he did not enjoy absolute immunity from civil-damage claims based upon those activities. The court held that Trump's activities were political, not official, because they "entirely concern his efforts to remain in office for a second term."
The this is now the third time that the D.C. district held that Trump's January 6-related activities were outside the scope of his official duties. See Thompson v. Trump (also denying absolute immunity) and United States v. Chrestman (rejecting a defense in a criminal case against a January 6 insurrectionist).
Monday, November 14, 2022
The Eighth Circuit granted a motion to stop the Biden Administration from implementing its student-debt forgiveness program pending appeal. The court just a few weeks ago granted an emergency motion for an administrative stay, to the same effect.
The ruling halts implementation of the program nationwide during the state's appeal. It's another setback for the loan-forgiveness program in the courts.
The court said, contrary to the district court, that the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority had standing as a state agency, or, if not, because of "MOHELA's financial obligations to the State treasury, the challenged student loan debt cancellation presents a threatened financial harm to the State of Missouri." Moreover, "the equities strongly favor an injunction considering the irreversible impact the Secretary's debt forgiveness action would have as compared to the lack of harm an injunction would presently impose."
The court said that it couldn't limit an injunction to the plaintiff states, however, because MOHELA services loans nationwide, and because "tailoring an injunction to address the alleged harms to the remaining States would entail delving into complex issues and contested facts that would make any limits uncertain in their application and effectiveness."
Friday, November 11, 2022
Justice Sotomayor, as Second Circuit justice, denied an emergency application to halt New York City's vaccine mandate for public employees, pending appeal.
The denial came without explanation. That's not unusual for this kind of thing.
A group called New Yorkers for Religious Liberty filed the application. It argued that the City's enforcement of the vaccine mandate violate the Free Exercise Clause. In particular, the group maintained that the City had too much discretion in granting religious exemptions, that the City "play[ed] denominational favorites" and made other arbitrary decisions regarding exemptions, and that "[t]he City uses its executive discretion to prefer secular conduct that undermines the government's asserted interest in similar ways as non-exempted religious conduct."
The arguments looked to exploit holes in the Smith test, which applies rational basis review to government actions that are neutral with regard to religion and generally applicable. The Court in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission held that statements by commissioners reflected anti-religious animus, and therefore the Commission failed to apply Colorado's anti-discrimination law in a way that was neutral with regard to religion. More recently, in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, the Court ruled that the City's discretion in enforcing anti-discrimination law made it not generally applicable. The two rulings significantly chipped away at Smith, even if the Court (so far) has declined to outright overrule Smith.
The group's arguments in its emergency application are in the same spirit--that the City enforces the otherwise neutral and generally applicable vaccine mandate in a way that discriminates against certain religious beliefs, or leaves too much discretion in the hands of City officials who can grant exemptions.
Justice Sotomayor's denial follows two Court rulings earlier this year, one rejecting a Biden Administration effort to impose a vaccine mandate on employees of large employers and another one upholding a Biden Administration move to require facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid funding to ensure that their employees are vaccinated. Those rulings turned on the Administration's authority to adopt those rules, however, and not the Free Exercise Clause.
Judge Mark T. Pittman (N.D. Tex.) ruled that the Biden Administration's student-loan forgiveness program is unconstitutional. The Administration already said that it'd appeal.
Judge Pittman's ruling is different than these, in that it isn't temporary. Instead, it "vacates" the program in its entirety.
The court ruled that the program violated the newly discovered major questions doctrine. The court said that the program involved a matter of "vast 'economic and political significance'" (because it'll "cost more than $400 billion"), yet Congress hadn't clearly authorized it in the HEROES Act. Under West Virginia v. EPA's major questions doctrine, the court said that the program is therefore unconstitutional.
That's striking, given that the HEROES Act plainly authorizes the Secretary of Education to "waive or modify" federal student loans "as the Secretary deems necessary in connection with a war or other military operation or national emergency." ("The term 'national emergency' means a national emergency declared by the President of the United States.") It's striking, too, because, unlike the West Virginia case, the Administration's action here doesn't impose a regulatory scheme. If the major questions doctrine reaches this program, it'll likely reach a whole lot of other programs that we might not necessarily have expected under West Virginia, too--programs where the president has statutory authority to declare an "emergency," or where an administration takes non-regulatory action. (And remember: the Court hasn't defined "economic and political significance." So we don't know how or whether that limiting principle would apply.)
The ruling is striking at an even more basic level, on standing. Under the standing rule, a plaintiff, in order to get into federal court, has to plausibly plead (1) that they've suffered a harm, (2) that the defendant's action caused the harm, and (3) that the plaintiff's requested relief will redress the harm. Here, the plaintiffs in the case didn't qualify for the full forgiveness. That was their "harm" for standing purposes. And they connected that harm to the forgiveness program, demonstrating causation.
Yet they asked the court to vacate the entire program (as opposed to remand to the Department to fix it so that they'd qualify). The court obliged, and, as a result, they (still) don't get forgiveness (and neither does anyone else). This seems counterproductive, at best, as a practical matter. But it also seems to play fast and loose with the third standing requirement, that the requested relief must redress the harm.
Thursday, November 10, 2022
The Second Circuit ruled that a district court improperly granted summary judgment to the Rockland County Department of Health (NY) and its officials in a claim by parents of minor children that the Department's order excluding unvaccinated children from school violated their right to free exercise of religion.
The ruling means that the district court must hold a trial to resolve disputed facts surrounding the claim before ruling on the free exercise issue.
The case, M.A. v. Rockland County Department of Health, arose when the Department excluded children who were not vaccinated against measles from attending school. The Department issued the order in response to a measles outbreak.
Parents sued, arguing that the order violated free exercise, among other things. The district court ruled that the order was neutral with regard to religion and generally applicable. It applied Smith's rational basis review and granted summary judgment to the district.
The Second Circuit reversed. The court said there were facts in dispute as to the order's neutrality and general applicability that made the case inappropriate for summary judgment.
While a reasonable juror could conclude that [a Department official's] statements [about individuals who oppose vaccines] evinced religious animus, rendering the Declaration not neutral, a reasonable juror could also conclude the opposite. Similarly, there are disputes of fact regarding whether the Declaration, in practice, primarily affected children of religious objectors or whether there was a sizable population of children who were unvaccinated for a variety of non-medical and non-religious reasons. There are also disputes as to whether the County's purpose in issuing the Declaration was to stop the spread of measles or to encourage vaccination. Given these fact-intensive issues, the district court's grant of summary judgment on the Plaintiffs' Free Exercise Claim was erroneous.
The case now goes back to the district court for a trial on these questions.
The Sixth Circuit ruled this week that the First Amendment doesn't protect a right to record police misconduct investigations.
The case, Hils v. Davis, arose when the president of the police union sought to record Citizen Complaint Authority interviews of an officer in a police-misconduct investigation. The union president alleged that the Authority wasn't recording the entire interviews, so he sought to fill the gaps. The Authority prevented him from recording, and he sued.
The court examined the "many potential ways to think about this claim," including text and history of the First Amendment, precedent involving press access to public proceedings, government-employee speech, and forum analysis. It rejected the claims under them all. The fundamental problem according to the court: Authority interviews are part of non-public government investigations. The court said that the Authority has a legitimate interest in keeping the interviews under wraps while the investigation is pending, and that interviewees have other ways of voicing their concerns that the Authority is selectively recording the interviews: Say so.
The Fifth Circuit rejected claims by a tanning business that COVID shutdowns violated its equal protection rights and amounted to an uncompensated taking.
The case, Golden Glow Tanning Salon v. City of Columbus, Mississippi, arose when Columbus ordered a seven-week shutdown of certain businesses in the early days of the COVID pandemic. Golden Glow sued, arguing that the shutdown violated equal protection and constituted an uncompensated taking.
The Fifth Circuit rejected both claims. The court applied rational basis review to Golden Glow's equal protection claim, and concluded that Columbus's action was reasonable, even if a little both over- and underinclusive. As to takings, the court rejected Golden Glow's claim that the shutdown effected a per se taking, because Golden Glow failed to demonstrate that the shutdown "rendered the entire property 'valueless.'"
Judge Ho concurred, and pitched a case for the right to earn a living as a fundamental right. Judge Ho argued that the right "to pursue callings" has even better historical foundations than other unenumerated fundamental rights.
Friday, November 4, 2022
The Eleventh Circuit yesterday ruled that Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene's federal lawsuit seeking to halt a state-level challenge to her candidacy was moot. The court said that the state process ran its course in her favor, and so there was nothing left for the federal courts to enjoin.
The case started when a group of Georgia voters filed a claim under Georgia's "Challenge Statute" that Marjorie Taylor Greene was ineligible for election to the House under Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment. That provision says that a person can't be candidate for office if they took an oath as an officer to support the Constitution of the United States and subsequently "shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof."
Greene sued in federal court to halt the state-level challenge, arguing that it violated her First Amendment right to run for public office; the Due Process Clause; Article I, Section 5, insofar as it exceeded the state's power to regulate election procedures and usurped the House's role as judge of the qualifications of its members; and the 1872 Amnesty Act (which she claimed removed the "disability" imposed by Section 3 prospectively to all members of Congress).
The federal district court ruled against Greene, and Greene appealed to the Eleventh Circuit.
Meanwhile, in the state challenge, a Georgia administrative law judge ruled that Greene's challengers failed to show that she fit within Section 3. Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger adopted the ALJ's conclusion, and the state courts affirmed.
Given that the state challenge ran its course, the Eleventh Circuit yesterday dismissed Greene's federal case as moot. The court said nothing about the merits of the challengers' Section 3 claim against Greene.
But Judge Branch, in a concurring opinion, argued that Greene was likely to prevail on her claim that the state process would have violated Article I, Sections 4 and 5 by imposing an additional qualification on her--that she defend herself against a Section 3 challenge in a state process:
[I]n purporting to assess Rep. Greene's eligibility under the rubric of Section 3 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Georgia imposed a substantive qualification on her. The State was not merely, as the district court incorrectly concluded, enforcing the preexisting constitutional disability in Section 3. Instead, the State Defendants, acting under the Challenge Statute, forced Rep. Greene to defend her eligibility under Section 3 to even appear on the ballot pursuant to a voter challenge to her candidacy--thereby imposing a qualification for office that conflicts with the constitutional mechanism contained in Section 3. In other words, by requiring Rep. Greene to adjudicate her eligibility under Section 3 to run for office through a state administrative process without a chance of congressional override, the State imposed a qualification in direct conflict with the procedure in Section 3--which provides a prohibition on being a Representative and an escape hatch.
Thursday, November 3, 2022
The Ninth Circuit ruled yesterday that the Miss United States of America Pageant can exclude a transgender woman as a matter of free speech. The court said that the Pageant was inherently expressive, and that requiring it to include a transgender woman would impermissibly interfere with its message.
The case, Green v. Miss United States of America, arose when Anita Noelle Green, a transgender woman, sued the Pageant for excluding her in violation of the Oregon Public Accommodations Act. The Pageant claimed that it declined to include Green because she failed to meet its "natural born female" eligibility criterion, and that the Oregon Act violated the First Amendment insofar as it required the Pageant to include her. The district court ruled for the Pageant, and the Ninth Circuit affirmed (though for a slightly different reason).
The Ninth Circuit held that the Pageant was an expressive activity, protected by free speech, and that forcing it to accept a transgender woman would fundamentally alter its expressive message. The court said that compelling the Pageant to include the woman would amount to a content-based regulation on speech, triggering strict scrutiny--a standard the government couldn't meet. According to the court, that's because eliminating discrimination against LGBTQ individuals isn't a compelling government interest, at least in the speech context.
Judge VanDyke concurred and argued that requiring the Pageant to include Green would also violate the Pageant's First Amendment right to expressive association. (That was the basis of the district court's ruling.)
Judge dissented. She argued that the court should first figure out whether the Oregon Act even applied to the Pageant. But if it did, she argued that Green should prevail: the Oregon law compels neither speech nor association.
Monday, October 31, 2022
Fifth Circuit to Reconsider Whether Officers are Immune for Arresting Journalist for, well, Doing Journalism
The full Fifth Circuit on Friday agreed to rehear a ruling by a three-judge panel that rejected qualified immunity for officers enforcing a Texas law that criminalizes solicitation of information from a public servant with intent "to obtain a benefit." The full court also vacated the panel ruling.
In other words, it's now not clearly unconstitutional to arrest and charge a person for doing journalism in the Fifth Circuit.
The full court's move is just the latest in this long-running case. It started when Priscilla Villarreal, a Facebook journalist, posted a story about a man who committed suicide and another story with the last name of a family involved in a fatal car accident. Villarreal confirmed the names with local authorities. After she posted, she was arrested.
Authorities charged Villarreal with violating Texas law that criminalizes the solicitation of non-public information from a public servant with intent "to obtain a benefit." (Villarreal's "benefit" was gaining more Facebook followers.) The state trial court quite predictably tossed the case, ruling that the Texas law was unconstitutionally vague.
Villarreal then sued authorities in federal court for various violations of her constitutional rights, including First Amendment rights. The district court dismissed the case, but a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit reversed. Noting that "[i]t is not a crime to be a journalist," the court said that authorities violated Villarreal's clearly established constitutional rights.
Then on Friday the full Fifth Circuit vacated the panel ruling and agreed to rehear the case. The Friday ruling included no opinions, so we don't really know where the Fifth Circuit's ultimately going with this.
But in the meantime, if you're a journalist in Texas, beware. You apparently have no clearly established constitutional right to do your job.
Saturday, October 29, 2022
A federal district court declined to stop an organization from "monitoring" and photographing voters at Arizona voting drop-box locations, in part because the court said that the organization's activities are protected under the First Amendment. The ruling means that Clean Elections USA and its "monitors" can continue watch voters at the drop-boxes and photograph voters.
The case, Arizona Alliance for Retired Americans v. Clean Elections USA, tests Clean Elections' practice of posting volunteers at voting drop-box locations to monitor voters and take pictures of them and their license plates. According to the court, "[m]any voters have filed official complaints . . . and have even sought out law enforcement assistance." Plaintiffs sued, arguing that the practice violated the Voting Rights Act and the Ku Klux Klan Act. They sought a temporary restraining order to stop the practice.
The court declined. The court held that Clean Elections' practices were not sufficiently intimidating to violate the VRA, despite the fact "that Plaintiffs and many voters are legitimately alarmed by the observers filming at the . . . early voting drop boxes." Alternatively, the court held that it couldn't stop Clean Elections "without violating the First Amendment." (How? Several ways, according to the court. For one, "the Court finds that a reasonable observer could interpret the conduct as conveying some sort of message, regardless of whether the message has any objective merit." For another, there's a "First Amendment right to film matters of public interest." For a third, there's "a right to gather news." And for a fourth, there's a "right to receive information.")
As to the Ku Klux Klan Act, the court held that the plaintiffs failed to show that Clean Elections intended to intimidate or threaten voters (intent being a requirement under the Act).
Thursday, October 27, 2022
The full D.C. Circuit, with no noted dissent, declined to review a panel ruling that held that the House Committee on Ways and Means could obtain former President Trump's tax returns from Treasury. This isn't really a surprise: the panel ruling in favor of the Committee was thorough and sound.
But this doesn't mean that the Committee will actually get the returns anytime soon. That's because Trump is sure to seek review at the Supreme Court. Even if the Court declines review quickly, Trump'll certainly drag this out until the next Congress moves in. If Republicans take the House, the whole thing'll become moot.
Wednesday, October 26, 2022
You Might Find This Interesting: The Dueling First Amendment Claims in the Ninth Circuit's Cancer-Warning Case
A Ninth Circuit case over California's cancer-warning requirement raises interesting competing First Amendment claims. In particular, the case tests free-speech rights of businesses against government compelled warnings versus the right-to-access rights of private litigants who sue to enforce those warnings. In the latest chapter, the full Ninth Circuit today leaned in favor of the businesses.
The case, California Chamber of Commerce v. Council for Education and Research on Toxics, tests California's Prop 65, which requires "clear and reasonable warning" on any "chemical known to the state to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity." The law authorizes government officials and private litigants to sue to enforce it.
The California Chamber sought a preliminary injunction to stop the state AG and CERT, a private organization, from suing to enforce Prop 65 as applied to foods and drinks that contain acrylamide. The district court granted the injunction, and a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit affirmed. The court affirmed the district court findings that there's a "robust disagreement by reputable scientific sources over whether acrylamide in food causes cancer in humans," that the warning for acrylamide was misleading, and that defendants who used an alternative warning system faced a "heavy litigation burden" in Prop. 65 lawsuits. For these reasons, the court held that Prop. 65 likely violated the commercial-speech rule under Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel.
Today the full Ninth Circuit declined to review the ruling. The dissent argued that the panel ruling violated a different, competing First Amendment right, CERT's right to access to justice under the Petition Clause. The dissent claimed that the panel impermissibly expanded the "illegal objective" exception to the right to access to justice. That exception, from a footnote in Bill Johnson's Restaurants, Inc. v. NLRB, says that the NLRB could enjoin suits that have "an objective that is illegal under federal law." For example, the NLRB could halt lawsuits by unions for enforcement of fines that could not lawfully be imposed under the National Labor Relations Act. Today's dissent argued that the earlier panel impermissibly expanded the exception in two ways: (1) it expanded the exception to non-labor cases, beyond how any other circuit court has ruled; and (2) it expanded the exception based only on a prediction (not a final merits determination) that the underlying lawsuit pursued an "illegal objective" (here, a violation of the Zauderer rule, because the earlier panel ruling only held that Prop. 65 was likely to violate free speech).
Well, anyway, I thought this was kinda interesting, and I thought you might, too.
The First Circuit flatly rejected a defamation case filed by a conspiracy theorist and attendee at the January 6 insurrection against an online media outlet. The reason: the defendant's claims about the plaintiff were true, according to her own statements.
The case, Cheng v. Neumann, arose when the online media outlet Beacon published a piece that identified Dana Cheng as "a far-right media personality and conspiracy theorist who has said she was among the supporters of former President Donald Trump who were present at the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6." The Beacon piece also referenced related statements by Cheng and linked to a podcast where she said them. Cheng and her own media group sued for defamation.
The First Circuit flatly rejected the claim. Without even considering "First Amendment principles concerning public figures and the pleading requirements for actual malice," the court held that Cheng had no claim, because the Beacon piece was accurate. The court said that the piece simply placed Cheng at the insurrection, where she in fact was (as she herself said). Contrary to Cheng's claims, the Beacon piece simply did not imply that she was a "full, enthusiastic, and partisan participant in the violence of January 6, 2021" and that she "was present as a violent participant in the January 6 violent assault on the Capitol." The court wrote, "A complaint cannot plausibly allege falsity where, as here, materials incorporated into the complaint refute that very assertion." (Pro tip: If you're going to sue for defamation, try not to admit the truth of the alleged defamatory statements in your own complaint.)
The court also held that other Beacon statements that Cheng's media company "has promoted anti-vaccine misinformation and . . . QAnon" were non-actionable opinions.
Tuesday, October 25, 2022
The Ninth Circuit last week ruled that Planned Parenthood could collect compensatory damages from an organization that used illegal means to infiltrate conferences and record Planned Parenthood staff without their consent. The ruling rebuffs the organization's argument that free speech protects against such damages, and reminds under the First Amendment, journalists are just like the rest of us.
The case, Planned Parenthood v. Newman, arose out of anti-choice activists' efforts to infiltrate conferences that Planned Parenthood attended or hosted and to surreptitiously record conversations with Planned Parenthood staff. Planned Parenthood sued for trespass, fraud, conspiracy, breach of contract, unlawful and fraudulent business practices, civil RICO, and various state and federal wiretapping laws. The district court ruled for Planned Parenthood and awarded statutory, compensatory, and punitive damages. The defendants appealed, arguing that compensatory damages violated the First Amendment.
The Ninth Circuit rejected the claim. The court said that even if the defendants were acting as journalists, they're bound by facially constitutional statutes that apply to everyone. In other words, the First Amendment applies the same to journalists; they don't get a free pass just because they're journalists.
[W]e repeat today that journalists must obey laws of general applicability. Invoking journalism and the First Amendment does not shield individuals from liability for violations of laws applicable to all members of society. None of the laws Appellants violated was aimed specifically at journalists or those holding a particular viewpoint. The two categories of compensatory damages permitted by the district court, infiltration damages and security damages, were awarded by the jury to reimburse Planned Parenthood for losses caused by Appellants' violations of generally applicable laws.