Friday, July 24, 2020
Federal Judge Enjoins Federal Agents Acting Against Journalists and Legal Observers in Portland, Oregon
In a Temporary Restraining Order and Opinion in Index Newspapers v. City of Portland, Judge Michael Simon enjoined the U.S. Department of Homeland Security ("DHS"); and the U.S. Marshals Service ("USMS") — the "Federal Defendants" — from arresting and otherwise interfering with journalists and legal observers who are documenting the troublesome and now widely reported events in Portland, Oregon, which have attracted Congressional attention.
Judge Simon's relatively brief TRO opinion, first finds that the plaintiffs have standing, and then applying the TRO criteria importantly finds that there is a likelihood the plaintiffs would prevail on the First Amendment claim. Judge Simon found both that there was sufficient circumstantial evidence of retaliatory intent against First Amendment rights and that plaintiffs had a right of access under Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court (1986). Judge Simon found fault with many of the specific arguments of the federal defendants, including the unworkability of the remedy:
The Federal Defendants also argue that closure is essential because allowing some people to remain after a dispersal order is not practicable and is unworkable. This argument is belied by the fact that this precise remedy has been working for 21 days with the Portland Police Bureau. Indeed, after issuing the first TRO directed against the City, the Court specifically invited the City to move for amendment or modification if the original TRO was not working, or address any problems at the preliminary injunction phase. Instead, the City stipulated to a preliminary injunction that was nearly identical to the original TRO, with the addition of a clause relating to seized property. The fact that the City never asked for any modification and then stipulated to a preliminary injunction is compelling evidence that exempting journalists and legal observers is workable. When asked at oral argument why it could be workable for City police but not federal officers, counsel for the Federal Defendants responded that the current protests are chaotic. But as the Federal Defendants have emphatically argued, Portland has been subject to the protests nonstop for every night for more than 50 nights, and purportedly that is why the federal officers were sent to Portland. There is no evidence that the previous 21 nights were any less chaotic. Indeed, the Federal Defendants' describe chaotic events over the Fourth of July weekend through July 7th, including involving Portland police, and the previous TRO was issued on July 2nd and was in effect at that time. The workability of the previous TRO also shows that there is a less restrictive means than exclusion or force that is available.
The TRO is quite specific as to journalists as well as to legal observers, providing in paragraph 5, to "facilitate the Federal Defendants' identification of Legal Observers protected under this Order, the following shall be considered indicia of being a Legal Observer: wearing a green National Lawyers' Guild-issued or authorized Legal Observer hat (typically a green NLG hat) or wearing a blue ACLU-issued or authorized Legal Observer vest."
The TRO lasts for 14 days; the litigation will undoubtedly last much longer.
Tuesday, May 5, 2020
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on Wednesday in Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants, Inc., the case testing whether the general ban on automated calls to cell phones in the Telephone Consumer Protection Act is an impermissible content-based restriction on speech because the Act exempts calls to collect government owned debt. Here's my Preview, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, with permission:
Congress enacted the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (TCPA) in order to protect individuals from the “nuisance” and “invasion of privacy” wrought by automated calls. Among other things, the TCPA prohibits any automated call to any cell phone number, except calls made for an emergency purpose or with the express consent of the called party. 47 U.S.C. § 227(b)(1)(A)(iii). While Congress was particularly concerned about automated telemarketing calls, the automated-call restriction is not limited to calls made to sell goods or services. Congress delegated authority to enforce the TCPA to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
In 2015, Congress added an exception to the automated-call restriction for calls “made solely to collect a debt owed to or guaranteed by the United States.” 47 U.S.C. § 227(b)(1)(A)(iii). The provision, called the “government-debt exception,” was designed to help the United States collect on debts “as quickly and efficiently as possible.” As part of the provision, Congress authorized the FCC to issue regulations “restrict[ing] or limit[ing] the number and duration of” these calls, so that the FCC could “protect consumers from being harassed and contacted unreasonably.” FCC regulations limit the government-debt exception to only those calls involving delinquent debt that the United States owns or guarantees, and where a caller has authority to accept payment and the recipient has a responsibility to pay.
In 2016, a group of political organizations and an association of political consultants, fundraisers, and pollsters sued the Attorney General and the FCC, arguing that the automated-call restriction, as amended by the government-debt exception, was a content-based restriction on speech in violation of the First Amendment. The plaintiffs sought a declaratory judgment that the automated-call restriction was unconstitutional on its face.
The district court ruled in favor of the government. The Fourth Circuit vacated the judgment and remanded for further proceedings. (The Fourth Circuit ruled that the government-debt exception was an impermissible content-based regulation on speech. But it then severed that exception from the broader automated-call restriction, and sent the case back to the district court to determine whether the automated-call restriction, now without the government-debt exception, violated free speech.) This appeal followed.
As a general matter, a content-based restriction on speech must be narrowly tailored, or necessary, to serve a compelling government interest. This test, called “strict scrutiny,” is the most demanding test known to constitutional law. It usually means that a content-based restriction on speech violates the First Amendment.
This case has a twist, though. The content-based portion of the automated-call restriction is in the government-debt exception (assuming, that is, that the government-debt exception is content-based—the first point of contention between the parties). The plaintiffs don’t challenge the government-debt exception alone (and that makes sense, because, after all, the exception allows speech); instead, they challenge the overall automated-call restriction based on the alleged impermissibly content-based government-debt exception.
And that leads to severability—the second point of contention between the parties. If the government-debt exception is a content-based regulation on speech, and if it therefore renders the entire automated-call restriction a content-based regulation on speech, then the Court may be able to save the automated-call restriction by simply extracting, or severing, the government-debt restriction—that is, by simply removing the offending portion.
The government argues that the government-debt exception is not a content-based restriction on speech. The government claims that the exception does not regulate speech based on its content, but rather based on “a certain kind of economic activity (the collection of government-backed debts).” To illustrate this point, the government says that the exception doesn’t apply unless the government owns or guarantees the debt, the caller has authority to collect the debt, and the debt is not delinquent—all requirements that do not relate to the content or message of the call. And to the extent that these requirements may touch on the content of the call, the government contends that these are not the kinds of things that typically trigger strict scrutiny.
Because the government-debt exception is not a content-based regulation of speech, the government argues that it is subject to a lower level of scrutiny, intermediate scrutiny, and that it passes. The government claims that the exception serves the “significant public and governmental interest in protecting the federal fisc,” and that the exception “directly advances” that interest by allowing automated calls to more efficiently collect on government debt. It says that the exception allows only a narrow range of calls for a limited purpose, and therefore sufficiently protects the privacy interests of those who are called.
Finally, the government argues that even if the government-debt exception is a content-based regulation of speech, the Court should sever it from the rest of the TCPA and leave the automated-call restriction intact. The government claims that the Act itself contains a severability provision that unambiguously requires severability, and that the history and purposes of the TCPA confirm “that Congress would have wanted the automated-call restriction to remain in effect independently of the government-debt exception.” (The government points to the fact that the automated-call restriction was on the books for 24 years before Congress added the government-debt exception.) The government contends that when the Court severs the government-debt exception, it removes the content-based regulation on speech (again, only assuming that the government-debt exception is a content-based regulation on speech) so that it can’t infect the rest of the Act—and so that the automated-call restriction can continue to stand.
The plaintiffs counter that the automated-call restriction is an impermissible content-based restriction on speech. The plaintiffs point to the government-debt exception to illustrate this. In short, they say that the automated-call restriction, including its government-debt exception, allows speech that “discusses only the collection of government-backed debt” but disallows speech on any other topic. The plaintiffs contend that fails strict scrutiny, because the government doesn’t have a compelling interest in protecting the public from unwanted communication, and, in any event, the “sweeping prohibitions” under the automated-call restriction “are far from the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.” (Indeed, they argue that “the statute is so hopelessly ill-tailored to the Government’s asserted privacy interest that [the automated-call restriction] fails any level of scrutiny.”)
The plaintiffs argue that the only appropriate remedy is to strike the automated-call restriction. They claim that Court precedent supports the idea that when a statute restricts speech based on content with exceptions that allow speech, the Court strikes the restriction, not the exceptions. Moreover, they claim that it’s the automated-call restriction, and not the government-debt exception, that harms them. The plaintiffs contend that the content-based discrimination reflected in the government-debt exception shows that the overall automated-call restriction is also content-based, and therefore unconstitutional. They assert that severing the government-debt exception (the provision that allows more speech) only to uphold the automated-call restriction (the provision that allows less speech) makes no sense when the First Amendment protects free (or more) speech.
Finally, the plaintiffs argue that the automated-call restriction violates free speech even if the Court severs the government-debt exception. They claim that the automated-call restriction is itself a content-based restriction on speech (even without considering the government-debt exception), and that it is “far broader than necessary to advance the narrow privacy interests the Government asserts.”
This ruling could have immediate and all-too-palpable significance for the estimated 96 percent of people in the United States who have a cell phone. Perhaps to state the obvious: a ruling for the plaintiffs could allow automated political calls to cell phones, right as the 2020 election goes into full swing. This could be a huge boon to those who seek to use automated-calling technology for political purposes (like the plaintiffs in this very case), but it could also be a huge drag to cell phone users who wish to avoid an onslaught of political calls on a device that was previously protected from them.
A ruling for the plaintiffs would effectively open up calls for other purposes, too, including commercial solicitations, advertisements, surveys, and the like.
But this is only if the Court rules (1) that the government-debt exception is a content-based restriction on speech, (2) that the government cannot justify the exception under strict scrutiny, and (3) that the government-debt exception therefore renders the entire automated-call restriction irremediably unconstitutional (because the government-debt exception cannot be severed). This is a tall order, even for a Court that has in recent years demonstrated an extreme preference for a free and open “marketplace of ideas”—and an equally extreme distaste for all manner of content-based regulations on speech.
Taking a step back from the particulars of First Amendment doctrine, here’s another way to think about this case: as a balance between, on the one hand, a free and open marketplace of ideas, involving our most highly valued speech (political speech), and, on the other, our need for and expectation of privacy from automated calls on our cell phones. At what point does the marketplace of ideas run into our expectation of privacy, on this especially private device?
Monday, May 4, 2020
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments tomorrow in USAID v. Alliance for Open Society International, the case testing whether the First Amendment bars Congress from restricting federal funds to fight HIV and AIDS abroad to foreign affiliates of U.S. nongovernmental organizations that have a policy opposing prostitution and sex trafficking. Here's my preview, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, with permission:
In 2003, in order to fight the global HIV and AIDS pandemic, Congress enacted the United States Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act. Under the Act, Congress has provided billions of dollars to fight HIV and AIDS abroad through increased treatment, efforts to prevent new infections and initiatives to “support the care for those affected by the disease.”
As part of its detailed factual findings in support of the Act, Congress determined that women were particularly vulnerable to HIV and AIDS. As relevant here, Congress identified “[p]rostitution and other sexual victimization,” including sex trafficking, as significant harms to women and children. The Act accordingly states that it “should be the policy of the United States to eradicate” the practices of “[p]rostitution and other sexual victimization.”
As part of its findings, Congress also determined that “[n]ongovernmental organizations . . . have proven effective in combating the HIV/AIDS pandemic” and are “critical to the success of . . . efforts to combat HIV/AIDS.” The Act accordingly “enlist[s] the assistance of nongovernmental organizations to help achieve the many goals of the program.”
But the Act establishes two conditions on its funds. First, the Act prohibits funds to “be used to promote or advocate the legalization or practice or prostitution or sex trafficking.” Second, at issue here, the Act specifies that no funds “may be used to provide assistance to any group or organization that does not have a policy explicitly opposing prostitution and sex trafficking,” with certain exceptions not relevant here. The parties refer to this second condition as the “Policy Requirement.” In order to enforce the “Policy Requirement,” the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service and the U.S. Agency for International Development directed that the recipient of any funding under the Act certify in the funding contract that it is opposed to “prostitution and sex trafficking because of the psychological and physical risks they pose for women, men, and children.”
In 2005, the Alliance for Open Society International and Pathfinder International, domestic NGOs that work to combat HIV and AIDS overseas, sued the government, arguing that the Policy Requirement violated their First Amendment rights. (The plaintiffs did not, and do not, support prostitution or sex trafficking, but they worried that complying with the Policy Requirement “may alienate certain host governments, and may diminish the effectiveness of some of their programs by making it more difficult to work with prostitutes in the fight against HIV/AIDS.”) As the case worked its way through the courts, the government adopted “Affiliate Guidelines” to try to accommodate the plaintiffs’ concerns. These Guidelines allowed domestic NGOs (like the plaintiffs) to “maintain an affiliation with separate organizations that do not have such a policy,” so long as those organizations met certain conditions. The Guidelines thus allowed domestic NGOs to abide by the Policy Requirement while working with foreign affiliates that could express their own views on prostitution. The plaintiffs argued that the Policy Requirement still violated their First Amendment rights, even with the Guidelines, in large part because the Guidelines required such a degree of separation between the plaintiffs and their affiliates that the affiliates’ speech could not stand-in for the plaintiffs’ own message.
The Supreme Court agreed. The Court first noted that as a general matter the government may place conditions on the receipt of federal funds, even when a condition may affect a recipient’s exercise of First Amendment rights. The Court said that these conditions merely “define the limits of the government spending program” by “specify[ing] the activities that Congress wants to subsidize.” But here, the Court held that the Policy Requirement sought “to leverage funding to regulate speech outside the contours of the program itself.” In other words, the Policy Requirement regulated more speech than necessary to define the program. As to the Affiliate Guidelines, the Court wrote,
When we have noted the importance of affiliates in this context, it has been because they allow an organization bound by a funding condition to exercise its First Amendment rights outside the scope of the federal program. Affiliates cannot serve that purpose when the condition is that a funding recipient espouse a specific belief as its own. If the affiliate is distinct from the recipient, the arrangement does not afford a means for the recipient to express its beliefs. If the affiliate is more clearly identified with the recipient, the recipient can express those beliefs only at the price of evident hypocrisy. The guidelines themselves make that clear.
As a result, the Court ruled that the Policy Requirement violated the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights and affirmed a preliminary injunction halting its enforcement against them. Alliance I, 570 U.S. 205 (2013).
After the Court ruled in Alliance I, in September 2014, HHS and USAID issued funding notices that explicitly exempted all domestic NGOs from the Policy Requirement but continued to apply the Requirement to foreign NGOs, including the plaintiffs’ affiliates. The plaintiffs sued again, arguing (for the first time) that the Policy Requirement’s application to their foreign affiliates violated their own First Amendment rights. In short, the plaintiffs said that their close affiliation with foreign NGOs meant that those NGOs’ certification under the Requirement could be imputed to them.
The district court agreed. The court applied the Court’s ruling in Alliance I and issued a permanent injunction, halting the government’s application of the Policy Requirement to the plaintiffs’ foreign NGO affiliates. (During the district court proceedings, the parties attempted to agree upon a definition of “affiliate” that would resolve the plaintiffs’ complaint. They apparently failed.) The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed. This appeal followed.
The government argues that it can apply the Policy Requirement to foreign entities operating abroad under basic constitutional principles. It first points out that as a general matter the government can set limits on the use and distribution of federal funds, and that recipients who object to those limits can simply decline the funds. It next notes that this general principle sometimes gives the government the ability to put unconstitutional conditions, including violations of the First Amendment, on the receipt of federal funds. But the government argues that the unconstitutional conditions doctrine only applies to recipients that actually have constitutional rights. It contends that foreign entities operating abroad have no such rights. Therefore, it contends that its denial of funds based on a foreign entity’s failure to comply with the Policy Requirement cannot violate that foreign entity’s First Amendment rights.
The government argues that the Third Circuit got it wrong when it held that the First Amendment bars enforcement of the Policy Requirement against the plaintiffs’ foreign affiliates, because such enforcement violates the plaintiffs’ own free speech rights. The government contends that “[n]o legal principle supports that proposition.” It claims that the plaintiffs themselves acknowledged that they are legally distinct from their foreign affiliates, and that basic tenets of corporate law reinforce that conclusion. The government says that the Court cannot treat the plaintiffs and their affiliates as a single entity, because, again, corporate law does not permit legally distinct entities to be treated as one, even if, as here, they share similar names, logos, and brands. The government asserts that the Court “has repeatedly enforced corporate separation even when presented with closer affiliations.”
The government argues that nothing in Alliance I suggests the contrary. The government claims that the Court in that case said nothing about whether the government could require foreign affiliates to adopt the Policy Requirement, and that it only considered affiliated organizations (in the passage quoted above) in order to show that their own speech could not alleviate any First Amendment problem with applying the Policy Requirement to the plaintiffs. The government says that this analysis has no bearing on this case, because the government now does not apply the Policy Requirement to domestic NGOs (and so there is no need to analyze whether their foreign affiliates might speak for them).
Finally, the government argues that there is no other basis to invalidate the application of the Policy Requirement to domestic NGOs. It says that such an application does not undermine the goals of the Leadership Act (as the plaintiffs contend), because, after all, Congress itself wrote the Policy Requirement into the Act. In any event, the government claims that efforts to eradicate prostitution and sex trafficking are perfectly consistent with a fight against HIV and AIDS, and that it has applied the Policy Requirement to foreign entities since the Leadership Act was enacted, without hindering that fight.
The plaintiffs counter that the government’s application of the Policy Requirement to their foreign affiliates infects their own speech in violation of the First Amendment. The plaintiffs say that the Policy Requirement, unlike a restriction on speech, necessarily taints all “clearly identified” affiliates, no matter where they operate, including the domestic plaintiffs themselves. They contend that the Court recognized this in Alliance I (again, in the passage quoted above), and that the government’s enforcement of the Policy Requirement to their foreign affiliates overseas therefore necessarily infringes on their own First Amendment rights.
The plaintiffs argue that this analysis is consistent with the more general constitutional prohibition on government forcing citizens to express views that they find objectionable. The plaintiffs contend that compelled speech (in contrast to restricted speech) “imprint[s] the speaker itself with the government’s view and depriv[es] the speaker and those to whom its speech is attributed of control over their message.” They say that the courts can’t remedy compelled speech by simply opening alternative channels for speech (as they can with restricted speech). Instead, the plaintiffs claim that the courts “must ensure that the government’s viewpoint is no longer forcibly imputed to the speaker.”
The plaintiffs argue that the record supports their points. They contend that they and their foreign affiliates are “unified organizations,” with “the same name, brand, and logo,” and that they “speak as one.” The plaintiffs say that the government’s own affiliate regulations make this clear: under those regulations, affiliates “must maintain objective independence from any entity that does not adhere to the recipient’s anti-prostitution pledge.” The plaintiffs claim that without an injunction against the enforcement of the Policy Requirement to their foreign affiliates, they have to “conform [their] own speech and conduct to [their] affiliate’s pledge to keep from jeopardizing not only their shared identity and reputation as a global public-health organization but also their federal funding.” The plaintiffs contend that formal legal separation with their affiliates does not change any of this: “[a]n organization-wide affirmation of belief will necessarily be attributed to any clearly identified components of the organization, regardless of their corporate structure.”
Finally, the plaintiffs assert that the government’s other arguments have no merit. They say that nothing in the record supports the government’s claim that upholding the injunction would undermine the Leadership Act or foreign aid more generally. They also say that nothing in the record supports the government’s “specter of sham affiliations,” especially given that the plaintiffs are “well-known, steadfast partners that for nearly two decades have worked with the government to save millions of lives.”
For the plaintiffs, the Policy Requirement, however the government enforces it, has always been a significant impediment to their hard-won relationships and credibility, and therefore to their tireless and sustained efforts, in their fight again HIV and AIDS around the world. That’s no small thing: the plaintiffs are major players in this global fight and, as they say, have been working with the government “for nearly two decades . . . to save millions of lives.” Moreover, for the plaintiffs and the communities they serve, the plaintiffs are one with their foreign affiliates. They not only share the same name, brand, and logo; they also share the same approach and messaging. For the plaintiffs, their legal distinction from their foreign affiliates is a mere formality, driven by the international, or multi-national, nature of their work, and the government’s enforcement of the Policy Requirement against their foreign affiliates is simply an attempt to sidestep the principles in Alliance I.
On the other side, for the government this case is about enforcing the Policy Requirement—and thus cracking down on prostitution and sex trafficking in the fight against HIV and AIDS—in whatever ways remain available after Alliance I. For the government, this objective is an essential part of the fight against HIV and AIDS under the Leadership Act, and enforcing the Policy Requirement against foreign entities is simply its way of fully enforcing the Act.
In short, this case is much more than a mere postscript to Alliance I. Indeed, for both sides, this case amounts to an entirely new challenge to, or defense of, the Policy Requirement. And the Court’s ruling will be every bit as important as its earlier ruling in Alliance I.
Tuesday, February 25, 2020
SCOTUS Hears Oral Arguments in First Amendment Challenge to Crime of Encouraging or Inducing Immigration Violation
The Court heard oral argument in United States v. Sineneng-Smith involving the constitutionality of 8 U.S.C.§ 1324(a)(1)(A)(iv). The statute makes it a crime for any person who
encourages or induces an alien to come to, enter, or reside in the United States, knowing or in reckless disregard of the fact that such coming to, entry, or residence is or will be in violation of law.
The Ninth Circuit held that this subsection "criminalizes a substantial amount of protected expression in relation to the statute’s narrow legitimate sweep; thus, we hold that it is unconstitutionally overbroad in violation of the First Amendment."
The oral argument before the Supreme Court on certiorari was a criss-crossing of the lines between conduct and speech, between criminal law and the First Amendment, and between constitutional avoidance and judicial ability to redraft a statute. The Deputy Solicitor General argued that the statutory provision was not aimed at speech and did not encompass "substantial amounts of it," and if it did, courts could remedy those situations with as-applied challenges rather than the "last resort remedy of overbreadth invalidation." Arguing for the Respondent, who had been convicted of two counts of the crime, Mark Fleming contended that the words of the statute — "encourages or induces" — are much broader than usual criminal words such as "solicitation" or "aiding and abetting." Fleming emphasized that the "even accurate advice" encouraging someone to stay in the United States is criminalized, including a teacher who says to an undocumented student that she should stay and pursue her education.
The argument returned several times to an amicus brief filed by Professor Eugene Volokh in support of neither party. Volokh contended that the Court should recognize that the line between protected abstract advocacy and unprotected solicitation must turn on specificity, and that
because the premise of the solicitation exception is that solicitation is conduct integral to the commission of a crime, only solicitation of criminal conduct can be made criminal consistently with the First Amendment. Solicitation of merely civilly punishable conduct cannot be made criminal, though it can be punished civilly.
(emphasis in original). It was this issue — that the undocumented person could be merely civilly liable while the person who "encourages or induces" the action of staying would be criminally prosecuted — that seemed to cause some consternation amongst the Justices. Justice Alito raised the encouraging suicide hypothetical:
There's a teenager who's -- who has been very seriously bullied and is very depressed and is thinking of committing suicide. The teenager has a gun in his hand. He calls up the one person he thinks is his friend and he says, I'm thinking of killing myself. And the person on the other end of the line says, you've said this before, I'm tired of hearing this from you, you never follow through, you're a coward, why don't you just do it, I encourage you to pull the trigger.
Now is that protected by the First Amendment? Is that speech protected by the First Amendment? Attempting to commit suicide is not a crime.
Nevertheless, whether or not the statute would be used that way, or to prosecute people based only on their speech, Fleming pointed to United States v. Stevens, involving the "crush-porn" statute which the Court found unconstitutional, noting that the "first Amendment does not require us to rely on the grace of the executive branch." Interestingly, after Stevens, Congress did pass a more narrow statute which has been upheld. That experience would surely be on some of the Justices' minds as they consider Chief Justice Roberts's comments about whether the extent to which the statute might be rewritten would need to be "passed by the Senate and House" and "signed by the President," garnering laughter in the courtroom.
Yet Fleming also noted that the government has recently made a "focus" of the enforcement of immigration laws and should the Court uphold the statute, more robust enforcement would likely follow. Given the current controversies around immigration, that would surely also be on the minds of the Justices.
Friday, January 10, 2020
The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari in Barr v. Political Consultants involving a First Amendment challenge to a provision of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 (the “TCPA”), 47 U.S.C. § 227(b)(1)(A).
The federal law prohibits calls to cell phones by use of an automated dialing system or an artificial or prerecorded voice, subject to three statutory exemptions including one added in 2015 for automated calls that relate to the collection of debts owed to or guaranteed by the federal government.
The challengers, political consultants and similar entities, argued that this exemption violated the First Amendment as a content regulation that could not survive strict scrutiny and further that the exemption could not be severed from the TCPA.
The district judge held that the TCPA exemption was content-based but satisfied strict scrutiny review. The Fourth Circuit's opinion agreed that the exemption was content-based, applying the rubric from Reed v. Town of Gilbert (2015). Like the district judge, the panel rejected the government's contention that it was not content-based but only relationship-based. The panel stated:
Instead, the exemption regulates on the basis of the content of the phone call. Under the debt-collection exemption, the relationship between the federal government and the debtor is only relevant to the subject matter of the call. In other words, the debt-collection exemption applies to a phone call made to the debtor because the call is about the debt, not because of any relationship between the federal government and the debtor.
a private debt collector could make two nearly identical automated calls to the same cell phone using prohibited technology, with the sole distinction being that the first call relates to a loan guaranteed by the federal government, while the second call concerns a commercial loan with no government guarantee.
Unlike the district judge, the Fourth Circuit concluded that the exemption failed strict scrutiny:
It is fatally underinclusive for two related reasons. First, by authorizing many of the intrusive calls that the automated call ban was enacted to prohibit, the debt-collection exemption subverts the privacy protections underlying the ban. Second, the impact of the exemption deviates from the purpose of the automated call ban and, as such, it is an outlier among the other statutory exemptions.
However, the Fourth Circuit agreed with the government that the exemption was severable, citing NFIB v. Sebelius (2012), and reasoning that severing the debt-collection exemption will not undermine the automated call ban. given that for twenty-four years, from 1991 until 2015, until the exemption was added, the automated call ban was “fully operative.”
The United States Supreme Court has now added this case to its 2019-2020 Term.
Sunday, December 29, 2019
The Ninth Circuit ruled last week in Danielson v. Inslee that a public sector union is not liable for mandatory union dues paid before the Supreme Court struck mandatory union fees in Janus. The ruling follows a similar one in the Seventh Circuit.
Recall that the Supreme Court ruled in 2018 in Janus v. AFSCME that public sector unions could not collect mandatory fair-share fees (fees used for collective bargaining activities) consistent with the First Amendment. The ruling overturned the 1977 case Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, which upheld mandatory fees against a First Amendment challenge.
After Janus, public sector unions stopped collecting the fees. But some public sector employees sued for pre-Janus fees paid. That's what happened in the Seventh Circuit, which led that court to hold that unions weren't on the hook for pre-Janus fees. And it's what happened in the Ninth Circuit, too.
The Ninth Circuit held that the union could invoke a good-faith defense against the plaintiffs' claims, relying on the pre-Janus state of the law to continue to collect mandatory fair-share fees. As to the strong hints from the Court even before 2018 that fair-share fees were on the chopping block, the Ninth Circuit said,
Although some justices had signaled their disagreement with Abood in the years leading up to Janus, Abood remained binding authority until it was overruled. We agree with our sister circuit that "[t]he Rule of Law requires that parties abide by, and be able to rely on, what the law is, rather than what the readers of tea-leaves predict that it might be in the future."
The Supreme Court has admonished the circuit courts not to presume the overruling of its precedents, irrespective of hints in its decisions that a shift may be on the horizon.
Thursday, December 12, 2019
The D.C. Circuit this week rejected First Amendment challenges by the vaping industry to two key provisions of the Tobacco Control Act. The ruling affirms the FDA's authority to require premarket review of vaping products and to ban the distribution of free samples of vaping products.
The case tests two provisions of the TCA. The first provision requires FDA premarket review of all new tobacco products, including e-cigarettes. The Act has three pathways for premarket review, depending on the type of tobacco product. Products designed for recreational use (like traditional cigarettes) get the easiest path of review; products marketed as safer than existing tobacco products ("modified risk" products) get a mid-level path; and products marketed as smoking cessation products get the most demanding path for review. The second provision bans the distribution of free samples.
Plaintiffs, a vaping manufacturer and a vaping industry group, argued that the two provisions violated the First Amendment. In particular, they claimed that the FDA uses a manufacturer's own claims about its product to designate an appropriate premarket review pathway (the modified risk pathway in this case), in violation of free speech. They contend that the ban on free samples impermissibly restricts their free expression. The D.C. Circuit flatly rejected the claims.
As to the premarket review requirement, the court cited circuit precedent that "explicitly approves the use of a product's marketing and labeling to discern to which regulatory regime a product is subject, and to treat it as unlawful insofar as it is marketed under a different guise." But in any event, the court also held that the requirement met Central Hudson's commercial speech test: "[E]ven if we were to scrutinize the FDA's reliance on new tobacco product descriptors as a burden on the Industry's commercial speech, the modified risk product pathway clears First Amendment scrutiny because it is reasonably tailored to advance the substantial government interest in protecting the public health and preventing youth addiction."
As to the ban on free samples, the court explained that this provision regulates conduct, not speech, and that the conduct has no obvious expressive value. The court rejected the plaintiffs' argument that free samples are "the most effective and efficient means of obtaining product-specific information when trying to switch away from deadly cigarettes":
The Industry thus appears to be urging us to afford constitutional protection to the informational value of customers' experience trying out vaping, including the experience of sampling the available flavors and sensations.
This extraordinary argument, if accepted, would extent First Amendment protection to every commercial transaction on the ground that it "communicates" to the customer "information" about a product or service. Even if we could bridge the gap between the opportunity to use a product and the expression of an "idea," the Supreme Court has long rejected the "view that an apparently limitless variety of conduct can be labeled 'speech' whenever the person engaging in the conduct intends thereby to express an idea."
But even if the free-sample ban imposed an incidental burden on speech, the court held that "the restriction itself applies to conduct and is imposed 'for reasons unrelated to the communication of ideas.'"
Wednesday, December 11, 2019
In an opinion in Turtle Island Foods SPC d/b/a Tofurky Co. v. Soman, Judge Kristine Baker of the Eastern District of Arkansas considered a First Amendment challenge to >Arkansas Code §§ 2-1-305(2), (5), (6), (8), (9), and (10). The provisions prohibit misbranding or misrepresenting agricultural products; central to the issue was subsection 6 which prohibits
Representing the agricultural product as meat or a meat product when the agricultural product is not derived from harvested livestock, poultry, or cervids.
Judge Baker considered seven labels for products she referred to as “Veggie Burger,” “Deli Slices,” “Chorizo Style Sausage,” “Slow Roasted Chick’n,” “Original Sausage Kielbasa,” “Hot Dogs,” and “Vegetarian Ham Roast.” These products were not derived from "harvested livestock, poultry, or cervids" and were vegetarian.
After finding that Tofurky had standing and that abstention was not appropriate, Judge Baker analyzed the merits of the First Amendment claim. The parties agreed and the court found that the well-established four prong Central Hudson test, Central Hudson Gas & Elec. Corp. v. Public Service Comm’n of New York (1980), for commercial speech governed:
- (1) whether the commercial speech at issue concerns unlawful activity or is misleading;
- (2) whether the governmental interest is substantial;
- (3) whether the challenged regulation directly advances the government’s asserted interest; and
- (4) whether the regulation is no more extensive than necessary to further the government’s interest.
Arkansas argued that the first prong regarding misleading speech was not satisfied and thus the speech did not warrant First Amendment protection, but Judge Baker found that taken as a whole the labels were not misleading:
It is true, as the State contends, that these labels use some words traditionally associated with animal-based meat. However, the simple use of a word frequently used in relation to animal-based meats does not make use of that word in a different context inherently misleading. This understanding rings particularly true since the labels also make disclosures to inform consumers as to the plant-based nature of the products contained therein.
The “Veggie Burger” label has the word “veggie” modifying the word “burger” and includes the words “all vegan” in the middle of the package. Further, the “Veggie Burger” label features the words “white quinoa” next to a picture of the burger. The “Deli Slices” label also includes the words “all vegan” in the middle of the label, features the words “plant-based” next to a picture of the product, and describes the product as “smoked ham style.” (emphasis added). The “Chorizo Style Sausage” label includes the words “all vegan” and states that the product was “made with pasture raised plants.” The “Slow Roasted Chick’n” label has the words “all vegan” right next to the product’s name and describes the product as “plant-based” in the bottom left corner. The “Original Sausage Kielbasa” label includes the words “all vegan” next to the word “sausage” and identifies the product as “Polish-style wheat gluten and tofu sausages.” The “Hot Dogs” label has the words “all vegan” next to the word “dogs” and “plant-based” under the word “dogs.” The “Vegetarian Ham Roast” has the word “vegetarian” modifying the words “ham roast.” Each of these labels also feature the letter “V” in a circle on the front of the packaging, a common indicator that a food product is vegan or vegetarian. Finally, each of these labels feature the company name “Tofurky,” which clearly contains the word “tofu” in a play on the word “turkey.”
Applying the other prongs of Central Hudson, Judge Baker found that while the state had an interest in preventing misleading labels, the statute did not substantially further that interest (given that these labels were not misleading), and that a ban on these descriptions was more extensive than necessary.
Thus, Judge Baker issued a preliminary injunction, finding that the factors for a preliminary injunction had been met.
Thursday, October 24, 2019
The Illinois Supreme Court last week upheld the state's revenge-porn law against a First Amendment challenge. The ruling rebuffed an appeal by a criminal defendant charged with violating the law.
The case, People v. Austin, tested Illinois's effort to criminalize revenge porn. The law provides as follows:
(b) A person commits non-consensual dissemination of private sexual images when he or she:
(1) intentionally disseminates an image of another person:
(A) who is at least 18 years of age; and
(B) who is identifiable from the image itself or information displayed in connection with the image; and
(C) who is engaged in a sexual act or whose intimate parts are exposed, in whole or in part; and
(2) obtains the image under circumstances in which a reasonable person would know or understand that the image was to remain private; and
(3) knows or should have known that the person in the image has not consented to the dissemination.
The court first ruled that the law doesn't cover material in any categorical exception to free speech (like incitement, true threats, obscenity, etc.), and it declined to establish a new exception.
It next ruled that the law is a content-neutral restriction on speech: "There is no criminal liability for the dissemination of the very same image obtained and distributed with consent. The manner of the image's acquisition and publication, and not its content, is thus crucial to the illegality of its dissemination." The court went on to hold that the act satisfies intermediate scrutiny, because it serves the state's interest in protecting privacy and "the substantial government interests of protecting Illinois residents from nonconsensual dissemination of private sexual images would be achieved less effectively" without it.
The court rejected arguments that the act was overbroad or vague.
The dissent argued that the act was content-based, because "one must look at the content of the photo to determine whether it falls within the purview of the statute," and that it failed strict scrutiny because it lacked a specific intent element. "Instead, simply viewing an image sent in a text message and showing it to the person next to you could result in felony charges."
Tuesday, September 10, 2019
The Ninth Circuit ruled today in Victory Processing v. Fox that Montana's ban on political robocalls violates the First Amendment. The ruling strikes the ban.
Montana's robocall statute reads as follows:
A person may not use an automated telephone system, device, or facsimile machine for the selection and dialing of telephone numbers and playing of recorded messages if a message is completed to the dialed number for the purpose of . . . promoting a political campaign or any use related to a political campaign.
A robocall company sued, arguing that the provision violated free speech. The Ninth Circuit agreed.
The court ruled that the provision is a content-based restriction on speech, and that it fails strict scrutiny. The court said that while the state had a compelling interest for enacting the provision--the protection of personal privacy--the ban wasn't narrowly tailored to achieve that end. In particular, the court said that the ban was underinclusive with respect to protecting personal privacy, because it singles out only political robocalls and four other topics for robocalling, but "leaves consumers open to an 'unlimited proliferation' of robocalls on other topics. The court also said the ban was also overinclusive, in that it regulates only "categories of robocalling that have not been shown to pose a threat . . . ."
The ruling aligns with Cahaly v. Larosa, 796 F.3d 399, a 2015 Fourth Circuit case also striking a ban on political robocalling.
Monday, August 19, 2019
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.
Judge 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.
Tuesday, August 13, 2019
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.
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.
Friday, July 12, 2019
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.
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]
Tuesday, July 9, 2019
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.
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.
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.
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]
Wednesday, June 5, 2019
In an Order in United States v. Rundo, United States District Judge Cormac J. Carney for the Central District of California dismissed an indictment against white supremacists Robert Rundo, Robert Bowman, and Aaron Eason, members of "Rise Above Movement" (RAM), concluding that the Anti-Riot Act, 18 U.S.C. §2101 violates the First Amendment as overbroad.
As Judge Carney explained in his relatively brief opinion, the Anti-Riot Act provides that:
Whoever travels in interstate or foreign commerce or uses any facility of interstate or foreign commerce, including, but not limited to, the mail, telegraph, telephone, radio, or television, with intent –
(1) to incite a riot; or
(2) to organize, promote, encourage, participate in, or carry on a riot; or
(3) to commit any act of violence in furtherance of a riot; or
(4) to aid or abet any person in inciting or participating in or carrying on a riot or committing any act of violence in furtherance of a riot;
and who either during the course of any such travel or use or thereafter performs or attempts to perform any other overt act for any purpose specified in subparagraph [(1)–(4)] . . . [s]hall be fined under this title, or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.
Moreover, after quoting the statute's definition to riot, Judge Carney explained,
to simplify, the Anti-Riot Act defines “riot” in two ways. A riot is a public disturbance involving acts of violence, committed by at least one person in a group, which results in property damage or personal injury. This first definition coincides with the common understanding of a riot––for instance, a crowd taking to the streets and smashing windows of a business. A riot also includes a public disturbance involving the threat of violence, by persons in a group, so long as at least one person could immediately act upon the threat. This second definition, for example, would apply to a group threatening to break the windows of a business, while the group is outside the business and holding rocks in their hands.
Yet, most troubling for Judge Carney was his interpretation that the statute "also criminalizes acts taken long before any crowd gathers, or acts that have only an attenuated connection to any riot, so long as the individual acts with the required purpose. See 18 U.S.C. § 2101(a). No violence even need to occur. A defendant could be convicted for renting a car with a credit card, posting about a political rally on Facebook, or texting friends about when to meet up."
The problem for Judge Carney was that the statute has "no imminence requirement": "The Anti-Riot does not require that advocacy be directed toward inciting or producing imminent lawless action. It criminalizes advocacy even where violence or lawless action is not imminent." Thus, Judge Carney concluded that the Anti-Riot Act eviscerates the protections of speech in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969). Further, Judge Carney rejected the government's argument that the Anti-Riot Act did include an imminence requirement, characterizing this as requiring "grammatical gymnastics—and some degree of hand waving–– " which the Judge was not willing to do. Judge Carney pointed out that under the Anti-Riot Act, the statement in Hess v. Indiana (1973) ("we'll take the streets later [or again]") would be criminalized, despite the United States Supreme Court's finding that such a statement did not meet the imminence requirement.
Finally, Judge Carney found that in balancing the "social costs" of upholding the statute or "striking it down," there were other laws— including state statutes — that could protect the public from violence or public disturbances, while enforcing the Anti-Riot Act substantially infringed on the rights of free speech and freedom of assembly. And while Judge Carney explicitly mentioned not condoning the message of the white supremacists and wrote that "one person's protest might be another person's riot," invoking controversial issues today such as "abortion, Black Lives Matter, climate change, or healthcare," his opinion is sure to be discussed as protecting right-wing protest.
Thursday, May 23, 2019
As anticipated, the Department of Justice has filed a superseding indictment against WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange.
The 18 count indictment charges 17 violations of the Espionage Act, 18 U.S.C. §793, as well as one count of conspiracy to commit computer intrusion. The factual recitations revolve around Chelsea Manning occurring in 2010; other highly publicized allegations involving President Trump and Hillary Clinton do not make an appearance (and their names are not mentioned in the indictment).
The charges of unauthorized obtaining and receiving of "National Defense Information" (counts 1-8) and unauthorized disclosure of that same national defense information (counts 9-17) raise First Amendment issues.
The argument is — quite simply — that Assange has done nothing different than other journalists who have published government information and should be covered by the same constitutional protections afforded the New York Times in The New York Times v. United States (1971), "The Pentagon Papers" Case.
In Assange's situation, the issue is not prior restraint but criminal liability, but certainly the same principles apply as we previously discussed. (Also consider the documentary on Daniel Ellsburg).
This issue has been brewing for a while. A good primer on the intersection between the Espionage Act and First Amendment protections of a free press, is Stephen Vladeck's 2007 article, Inchoate Liability and the Espionage Act: The Statutory Framework and the Freedom of the Press, 1 Harvard Law & Policy Review 219, available here.
Monday, May 20, 2019
Ninth Circuit Upholds Campaign Contribution, Firearms Ban for Foreign Nationals, Nonimmigrant Visa Holders
The Ninth Circuit last week upheld federal bans on campaign contributions and firearms possession by foreign nationals and nonimmigrant visa holders, respectively, against First and Second Amendment challenges. The ruling keeps the bans in place.
The case tested the federal ban on campaign contributions by foreign nationals. The court held first that Congress had authority impose the ban:
The federal government has the "inherent power as sovereign to control and conduct relations with foreign nations." . . . Thus, where, as here, Congress has made a judgment on a matter of foreign affairs and national security by barring foreign nationals from contributing to our election processes, it retains a broad power to legislate. . . . A prohibition on campaign donations and contributions by foreign nationals is necessary and proper to the exercise of the immigration and foreign relations powers.
The court held next that the ban didn't violate the First Amendment. The court relied on the Court's summary affirmance in Bluman v. FEC, writing that "although '[t]he precedential effect of a summary affirmance extends no further than the precise issues presented and necessarily decided by those actions,' Blumen did decide the precise issue present in this case."
As to the ban on firearm possession by nonimmigrant visa holders, the court acknowledged that there's some ambiguity about whether the law "burdens conduct protected by the Second Amendment" (the first step in the two-step Second Amendment analysis):
Some courts have read the historical right as one afforded only to citizens or those involved in the political community, while others have focused instead on an individual's connection to the United States. Nonimmigrant aliens, like those unlawfully present, are neither citizens nor members of the political community.
Still, the court assumed that the Second Amendment applied and moved to the second step, application of intermediate scrutiny, and upheld the ban:
The government's interest in this case is straightforward. The government's interest is . . . crime control and maintaining public safety. . . .
Further, the statute reasonably serves this important interest. It carves out exceptions for visa holders who are less likely to threaten public safety. . . . We find this tailoring sufficient.
Monday, May 13, 2019
The Court denied certiorari to the Ninth Circuit in Dahne v. Richey with a dissenting opinion by Justice Alito, joined by Justices Thomas and Kavanaugh. For the dissenters, the question was whether the First Amendment requires a "prison to entertain a prisoner grievance that contains veiled threats to kill or injure a guard?"
The Ninth Circuit's Memorandum Opinion did not characterize the prisoner's grievance as threatening, but instead stated that it included "rude comments about the guard’s weight, including describing her as “extremely obese." The dissenting opinion from certiorari and the Ninth Circuit opinion both agree that the prison official told the prisoner to rewrite the grievance, which the prisoner did, but did not cure the defects. For the Ninth Circuit, there was a First Amendment violation when the prison official refused to allow the grievance to proceed through the administrative process after the rewrite did not satisfy the official's "sense of propriety." For the Ninth Circuit, this meant that functionally only a grievance that conformed to an official's "personal conception of acceptable content could get meaningful review," which is "the sort of content-based discrimination that runs contrary to First Amendment protections."
But for Alito and his fellow dissenting Justices, the defects in the grievance offended more than a personal sense of propriety. Instead, the dissenters stated the grievance
contained language that may reasonably be construed as a threat. Specifically, the grievance stated: “It is no wonder [why] guards are assaulted and even killed by some prisoners. When guards like this fat Hispanic female guard abuse their position . . . it can make prisoners less civilized than myself to resort to violent behavior in retaliation.”
For the dissenters, even if "a prison must accept grievances containing personal insults of guards, a proposition that is not self-evident, does it follow that prisons must tolerate veiled threats? I doubt it, but if the Court is uncertain, we should grant review in this case."
Perhaps importantly, the Ninth Circuit in this Memorandum Opinion held there was qualified immunity, which could make the grant of review seem less vital. And while it is always precarious to extrapolate from any opinion to others, the dissent her does bring to mind the issues regarding the boundaries of First Amendment protection before the Court in the trademark case of Iancu v. Brunetti argued in April.