Saturday, July 1, 2023
The Supreme Court ruled on Friday that Colorado's anti-discrimination law violated the free-speech rights of a website designer who does not wish to create custom wedding websites for same-sex couples.
The ruling leaves the anti-discrimination law in place, but prohibits enforcement that would compel speech.
The Court didn't define "speech," however, at least not with any precision. The case therefore promises to bring new rounds of litigation as individuals and businesses seek to get out from under anti-discrimination laws--including laws that prohibit discrimination by sexual orientation or, apparently, any other characteristic--by defining their products and services as "speech." In short, we don't know exactly how far this ruling extends--to what kinds of objections based on what kinds of characteristics, and what constitutes "speech."
The ruling, while dealing with free speech (not religion), also follows the Court's trend in its Religion Clause cases of inviting and compelling religion and religious beliefs to play a greater and greater role in public life. That's because the plaintiff in the case, Lorie Smith, who owns 303 Creative, objects to creating custom wedding websites for same-sex couples because of her religious beliefs. But just to be clear: nothing in the ruling protects only a person or business who objects based only on religion; instead, the ruling prohibits the government from applying anti-discrimination laws in a way that would compel a speaker to communicate in violation of any of their beliefs.
The case, 303 Creative v. Elenis, tested whether Colorado's anti-discrimination law (which prohibits discrimination by public accommodations because of sexual orientation, among other characteristics) impermissibly compelled Smith, who sought to provide custom wedding websites for customers, to create websites for same-sex couples. The Court said yes: the Colorado law compelled Smith to speak against her beliefs in violation of the First Amendment.
Justice Sotomayor wrote a lengthy and scathing dissent, joined by Justices Kagan and Jackson.
Tuesday, June 27, 2023
The Supreme Court today clarified the "true threats" threats exception to the First Amendment, holding that true threats require that a speaker had a subjective understanding of the threatening nature of their statements, under a recklessness standard. In short, "The State must show that the defendant consciously disregarded a substantial risk that his communications would be viewed as threatening in nature."
In so ruling, the Court rejected an objective standard--that a reasonable person would understand their statements as threats. As a result, the Court narrowed the range of unprotected true threats, and protects more threats, again, so long as the speaker didn't have a subjective understanding of the threatening nature of their statements.
The ruling is consistent with a string of cases in recent years narrowing the familiar "categories" of unprotected speech.
The case, Counterman v. Colorado, arose out of a series of threatening Facebook posts by Billy Counterman and directed at a local singer and musician. As a result of the posts, the recipient "stopped walking alone, declined social engagements, and canceled some of her performances, though doing so caused her financial strain."
Counterman was convicted under a Colorado stalking statute. He raised a free-speech defense, but the Colorado courts rejected it, applying an objective standard and holding that the statements were objectively threatening.
The Court reversed. It ruled that the First Amendment requires a subjective standard--that Counterman had a subjective understanding that his statements were threatening. The Court said that anything else would chill too much otherwise protected speech.
The Court went on to set the subjective bar relatively low, however, at recklessness. Here's why:
In advancing past recklessness, we make it harder for a State to substantiate the needed inferences about mens rea (absent, as is usual, direct evidence). And of particular importance,we prevent States from convicting morally culpable defendants. For reckless defendants have done more than make a bad mistake. They have consciously accepted a substantial risk of inflicting serious harm.
Justice Sotomayor concurred, joined in part by Justice Gorsuch. She wouldn't've "reach[ed] the distinct and more complex question whether a mens rea of recklessness is sufficient for true-threats prosecutions generally," although she agreed with the Court that a subjective, reckless standard was appropriate here. She wrote, "Furthermore, requiring nothing more than a mens rea of recklessness is inconsistent with precedent, history, and the commitment to even harmful speech that the First Amendment enshrines."
Justice Thomas dissented, taking aim at New York Times v. Sullivan and the Court's use of that case in crafting the subjective, reckless standard.
Justice Barrett dissented, joined by Justice Thomas, arguing that the Court's reckless standard "unjustifiably grants true threats preferential treatment" under the First Amendment.
Friday, May 12, 2023
The Ninth Circuit ruled that a public agency did not violate the First Amendment when it prohibited an employee from speaking to coworkers on matters related to the employee's alleged misconduct while an investigation was pending.
The case, Roberts v. Springfield Utility Board, arose when SUB initiated an investigation into Todd Roberts's "dishonest related to [his] work attendance." SUB prohibited Roberts from communicating with coworkers regarding the matter while the investigation proceeded. Roberts then sued, arguing that the restriction violated free speech.
The Ninth Circuit rejected the claim. The court ruled that SUB's restriction applied to speech that was not on a matter of public concern, and therefore Roberts didn't clear the first hurdle under Pickering v. Board of Education. The court noted that SUB's restriction permitted Roberts to communicate with coworkers on other matters, and allows his attorney to communicate with coworkers on matters related to the investigation.
Thursday, December 15, 2022
Check out Andrew Koppelman's Emerging First Amendment Right to Mistreat Students, Case Western L. Rev.:
Under the long-settled tradition of religious liberty, religious people may not demand a right to invade and direct the public sphere, to alter the delivery of state functions in order to force their views upon nonadherents. Yet in two prominent cases, Kennedy v. Bremerton in the Supreme Court and Meriwether v. Hartop in the Sixth Circuit, courts have held that publicly employed teachers may exercise their First Amendment rights of free speech and religion even when doing so mistreats students.
In both cases, despite a long-established rule of deference to public employers’ need to control their own operations – and despite mighty efforts to accommodate difficult employees - public schools lost the capacity to protect students from misbehaving teachers. In each, the school proposed a solution that would give appropriate weight to each side’s most urgent interests. Not good enough, the court decreed: the religious side must be granted an absolute and uncompromising victory. It was oblivious to the countervailing interest. The language of privacy and autonomy was deployed to enable the religious to wield state authority and harm their students.
These are only two cases. But they come from high federal courts, one from the Supreme Court, and their similarity of approach, and resemblance to other recent treatments of religious liberty by the Court, is a reasonable basis for alarm.
Thursday, December 8, 2022
The D.C. Circuit ruled this week that the DMCA doesn't violate the First Amendment rights of an inventor who wanted to create and sell a device that would circumvent technological protection measures for copyrighted digital content.
The case, Green v. U.S. Department of Justice, tests the DMCA's prohibition on "circumvent[ing] a technological measure that effectively controls access to a [copyrighted work]," or trafficking in technology, product, or service that "is primarily designed or produced for the purpose of circumventing a technological measure that effectively controls access to a [copyrighted] work."
Andrew "bunnie" Huang said that he wanted to create and sell a device that would so circumvent, and that he also wanted to publish his computer code to share with others. He brought a pre-enforcement challenge to the DMCA under the First Amendment.
The D.C. Circuit ruled that he's unlikely to succeed on the merits. (The case came to the court on Huang's appeal of the district court's denial of a preliminary injunction.) The court held that Huang's code was, indeed, speech, but that the DMCA was a content-neutral regulation, because the statute "cares about the expressive message in the code 'only to the extent that it informs' the code's function." (Quoting City of Austin v. Reagan National Advertising (2022)). The court then held that the DMCA easily passed intermediate scrutiny: it furthers an important or substantial government interest in protecting copyrighted work; the government interest is unrelated to the suppression of free expression; and the incidental restriction on free speech is no greater than necessary to advance that interest.
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 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.
Thursday, November 10, 2022
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.
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.
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).
Wednesday, October 26, 2022
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.
Tuesday, June 28, 2022
The Supreme Court on Monday ruled in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District that a public-school district violated the Free Exercise and Free Speech rights of a football coach who prayed at the 50-yard line after football games, and that the district could not justify its violations under the Establishment Clause.
The ruling is yet another move by the Court to expand free-exercise rights at the expense of anti-establishment concerns, and thus to allow and require religion to play a larger role in public life.
Still, it's not clear exactly how far this ruling will extend. That's because Court took pains to describe the coach's prayers as private religious exercises, contrary to the facts. By one reading, then, the case only allows a public employee to engage in private religious exercise that doesn't impede their job or coerce others to join. But don't expect the Court to limit this case to its facts. This is part of a larger move to expand free-exercise rights and limit the Establishment Clause, and we can expect the Court to use this case as a building block as it moves forward in this effort.
As part of the ruling, the Court abandoned the three-part Establishment Clause test under Lemon v. Kurtzman and replaced it with a "historical practices and understandings" test that "faithfully reflec[ts] the understanding of the Founding Fathers." (The Court acknowledged that this test includes an anti-coercion component, but it didn't specify exactly what coercion means.) It's not at all clear what that test means, or how lower courts will apply it. But again: this is part of the Court's larger move to expand free-exercise rights and limit the Establishment Clause, so we can expect the Court to apply this "historical practices and understandings" test consistently with that trend.
Justice Gorsuch wrote for the Court, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas, Alito, Kavanaugh (except the part on the coach's free-speech claim), and Barrett. The Court held that the district violated the Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses for disciplining the coach for "offer[ing] a quiet personal prayer" at the 50-yard line after football games. It went on to hold that the district couldn't justify its violations under any standard of scrutiny. It said that the district lacked a sufficient anti-establishment concern under its "historical practices and understandings" test, including that the district failed to demonstrate that the coach's prayers were impermissibly coercive.
Justice Sotomayor dissented, joined by Justices Breyer and Kagan. She argued that the Court got the facts wrong--this was no private prayer, but rather a very public exhibition--and that
Today's decision goes beyond merely misreading the record. The Court overruled Lemon v. Kurtzman and calls into question decades of subsequent precedents that it deems "offshoot[s]" of that decision. In the process, the Court rejects longstanding concerns surrounding government endorsement of religion and replaces the standard for reviewing such questions with a new "history and tradition" test. In addition, while the Court reaffirms that the Establishment Clause prohibits the government from coercing participation in religious exercise, it applies a nearly toothless version of the coercion analysis, failing to acknowledge the unique pressures faced by students when participating in school-sponsored activities. This decision does a disservice to schools and the young citizens they serve, as well as to our Nation's longstanding commitment to the separation of church and state.
Monday, May 2, 2022
The Supreme Court ruled today in Shurtleff v. City of Boston that the City violated free speech when it refused to permit an organization to fly a religious flag on one of its flagpoles. The ruling is a victory for the organization. Going forward, however, the City can either permit organizations to fly religious flags as part of its third-party-flag-flying program, redesign the program so that flag-flying amounts to government speech, or drop the program entirely and fly only U.S., state, and city flags.
The case raised religious-freedom issues, but only in the context of viewpoint discrimination (by religion) of free speech, not as separate religion-clause questions. Still, three Justices weighed in on the Establishment Clause, one (Justice Kavanaugh) to promote a neutrality approach, and two (Justices Gorsuch and Thomas) to denounce the Lemon test.
The case arose when Harold Shurtleff, director of an organization called Camp Constitution, requested permission to fly a Christian flag on one of the three flagpoles outside Boston City Hall. Although the City had long permitted various outside organizations to fly their own flags on one of the flagpoles, it declined Shurtleff's request out of fear of violating the Establishment Clause. Shurtleff sued, arguing that the denial violated free speech.
The Court today agreed. Justice Breyer wrote for the Court and first said that an outside flag flying on the city's flagpole did not amount to government speech. (The First Amendment does not restrict the government in its own speech. So if the flagpole amounted to government speech, the City would've prevailed against Shurtleff's free speech claim.) The Court looked to three types of evidence, drawn from Pleasant Grove City v. Summum and Walker v. Texas Div., Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc., to determine whether the flag was government speech: (1) the history of flag-flying at City Hall; (2) the public's likely perception about whose speech (the City, or the private organization) a flag represented; and (3) the extent to which the City "actively shaped or controlled the expression." The Court held that the evidence went both ways, but "[a]ll told, Boston's lack of meaningful involvement in the selection of flags or the crafting of their messages leads the Court to classify the third-party flag raisings as private, not government, speech."
The Court went on to hold that the City's denial amounted to impermissible viewpoint discrimination, on the basis of religion.
The Court pointed out that the City could change its policies going forward and turn its flagpoles into pure government speech, thus dodging any free-speech restrictions on its program.
The ruling was unanimous, but four Justices added their own views. Justice Kavanaugh, writing only for himself, argued that the whole dispute "arose only because of a government official's mistaken understanding of the Establishment Clause." He wrote: "As this Court has repeatedly made clear, however, a government does not violate the Establishment Clause merely because it treats religious persons, organizations, and speech equally with secular persons, organizations, and speech in public programs, benefits, facilities, and the like."
Justice Alito, joined by Justices Thomas and Gorsuch, argued that the Court's three-factor test for determining when speech is government speech was wrong. He pushed for this test: "government speech occurs if--but only if--a government purposefully expresses a message of its own through persons authorized to speak on its behalf, and in doing so, does not rely on a means that abridges private speech."
Finally, Justice Gorsuch, joined by Justice Thomas, took aim at the Lemon test. He said that Boston's conclusion that flying Camp Constitution's Christian flag would violate the Establishment Clause rested on this flawed--and "abandoned"--test.
Thursday, March 24, 2022
The Supreme Court ruled today that the Board of Trustees of the Houston Community College System did not violate the First Amendment when it censured a member for misconduct. The ruling is narrow: it only means that an elected body can censure (without further punishment) a member of the body (but not necessarily a non-member) without violating free speech.
The case, Houston Community College System v. Wilson, arose when the HCC Board censured member David Wilson for various antics that were "not consistent with the best interests of the College" and "not only inappropriate, but reprehensible." Wilson sued, arguing that the censure and related actions by the Board violated the First Amendment. The Court only addressed the censure, however, and not related actions.
Justice Gorsuch wrote for a unanimous Court that legislative bodies have a long tradition of censuring members, and that there's "little reason to think the First Amendment was designed or commonly understood to upend this practice." Moreover, the particular facts of this case counseled against Wilson's claim. For one, he was an elected official, and "[i]n this country, we expect elected representatives to shoulder a degree of criticism about their public service from their constituents and their peers--and to continue exercising their free speech rights when the criticism comes." For another, the only adverse action that Wilson suffered was . . . free speech by his colleagues on the Board. "The First Amendment surely promises an elected representative like Mr. Wilson the right to speak freely on questions of government policy." But just as surely, it cannot be used as a weapon to silence other representatives seeking to do the same."
Wednesday, November 10, 2021
The Supreme Court will hear arguments this morning in a case testing Austin's sign code, which allows digitization of on-premises signs, but not of off-premises signs. Here's my preview, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, with permission:
Does Austin’s city code, which distinguishes between on-premises signs (which may be digitized) and off-premises signs (which may not), constitute an impermissible content-based regulation of speech, in violation of the First Amendment?
Case at a Glance
The Austin Sign Code allows sign owners to digitize their on-premises signs (those that are located at the same site as the business or activity to which they relate). But it forbids owners from digitizing their off-premises signs (those that are not located at the same site as the business or activity to which they relate). Applying those regulations, the City denied permission to two corporations to digitize their off-premises signs.
Government speech regulations that are based on the content of the speech are subject to strict scrutiny, and are presumptively invalid, under the First Amendment. But it’s not always clear when a government regulation is content based. The Court sought to clarify this in Reed v. Town of Gilbert, 576 U.S. 155 (2015). In Reed, the Court held that a government speech regulation is based on content if the plain text of the regulation discriminates by the content of speech, or if the government cannot justify the regulation without reference to the content. Applying the first part of test, the Fifth Circuit held that Austin’s sign regulations were content based, because a person would have to read the sign (and its content) in order to determine whether the sign was on premises or off premises.
Is Austin’s distinction between on-premises signs and off-premises signs facially unconstitutional under Reed?
The City of Austin regulates signs within its jurisdiction based on their location. Under City regulations, the owner of an “on-premises” sign—a sign that advertises a business or activity that is located on the site where the sign is located—can digitize the sign. But the owner of an “off-premises” sign—a sign that “advertises a business, person, activity, good, products, or services not located on the site where the sign is installed”—cannot. Austin says that these rules protect the aesthetic value of the City and protect public safety.
In April and June 2017, Reagan National Advertising of Austin and Lamar Advantage Outdoor Company filed separate applications to digitize their off-premises billboards. The City denied the applications, citing its sign policy.
Reagan sued the City in state court. Reagan argued that Austin’s sign policy amounted to content-based discrimination of speech, and that it was facially unconstitutional. Austin removed the case to federal court, based on the federal constitutional question.
Then, in August 2017, Austin amended its Sign Code. The amended Code defines an “off-premise sign” as “as sign that displays any message directing attention to a business, product, institution, or other commercial message which is generally conducted, sold, manufactured, produced, offered, or occurs elsewhere than on the premises where the sign is located.” The regulations define an “on-premise sign” as “a sign that is not an off-premise sign.”
The amended Code also includes a new provision, dealing with non-commercial signs. It reads:
(A) Signs containing noncommercial speech are permitted anywhere that signs regulated by this chapter are permitted, subject to the same regulations applicable to the type of sign used to display the noncommercial message. No provision of this chapter prohibits an ideological, political, or other noncommercial message on a sign otherwise allowed and lawfully displayed under this chapter.
(B) The owner of any sign allowed and lawfully displayed under this chapter may substitute noncommercial speech in lieu of any other commercial or noncommercial speech, with no permit or other approval required from the City solely for the substitution of copy.
(C) This section does not authorize the substitution of an off-premise commercial message in place of a noncommercial or on-premise commercial message.
In October 2017, Lamar joined Reagan’s suit as a plaintiff. The district court ruled for the City, but the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed. This appeal followed.
The Court has long held that government regulations of speech that discriminate based on the content of the speech are subject to strict scrutiny and presumptively invalid. But determining whether a speech regulation discriminates based on content turns out to be much harder than it would seem. For decades, lower courts struggled with this.
In particular, in order to assess the question, lower courts before 2015 applied two different, and sometimes inconsistent, tests to determine whether a law restricted speech based on its content. One test looked to the plain text of a law or regulation and asked whether it discriminated on its face, based on the content or subject-matter of the speech. The other test looked to the purpose of the law or regulation and asked whether the government could justify its restriction “without reference to the content of [the] speech.” Hill v. Colorado, 530 U.S. 703 (2000).
Then, in 2015, the Court sought to clarify the confusion. The Court in Reed v. Town of Gilbert 135 S. Ct. 2218 (2015), adopted a two-part test to determine when a speech regulation is based on content. First, courts must read the text of the regulation to determine whether it distinguishes between speech based on its content, or message. Under Reed, a speech regulation that discriminates based on content on its face is automatically subject to strict scrutiny and presumptively invalid. This holds even if the regulation is based on a content-neutral purpose.
Next, if the facial text of the regulation is content-neutral, courts must examine the purpose of the regulation. If the regulation “cannot be ‘justified without reference to the content of the regulated speech,’” or if the government adopted the regulation “because of disagreement with the message [the speech] conveys,” then the court must treat the regulation as content based. Such a regulation is subject to strict scrutiny, and it is presumptively invalid.
The parties frame their arguments around Reed.
Austin argues first that its distinction between on-premises signs and off-premises signs is content neutral on its face. The City says that its distinction draws on a long, well recognized, and validated (even “ubiquitous”) tradition in zoning and sign-code practices, in which all levels of government distinguish in different ways between on-premises and off-premises signs. It claims that this traditional distinction is based upon the substantial government interests in regulating off-premises signs (like highway billboards), which pose especial traffic, safety, and even aesthetic concerns. Austin contents that digital billboards only add to those concerns. On the other hand, the City claims that on-premises signs are generally smaller, less distracting, and well-integrated into the existing property; it says that they also “implicate the compelling interest of businesses and property owners to advertise their goods and services on their own property.”
Austin contends that laws and regulations distinguishing between off-premises and on-premises signs, including its own, are content neutral. According to the City, that’s because the distinction is based on a sign’s location, not its content, subject, or viewpoint. It says that its sign regulation “singl[es] out no subject or viewpoint as a regulatory target.”
Austin argues next that the Fifth Circuit wrongly applied Reed in striking this provision of its Sign Code. The City claims that the lower court interpreted Reed to require a “read the sign” test, where a sign regulation is content-based if a person must read the sign itself in order to know if the regulation applies. But Austin contends that Reed does not support this test. It points to Justice Samuel Alito’s concurrence in Reed, joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy and Sonia Sotomayor, which provided examples of “some rules that would not be content based,” including “[r]ules distinguishing between signs with fixed messages and electronic signs with messages that change” and “[r]ules distinguishing between on-premises and off-premises signs”—exactly the rules at issue in this case.
Moreover, Austin contends that Reed’s reasoning itself refutes the Fifth Circuit’s read-the-sign test. The City claims that Reed relied on cases holding that laws were content neutral even when a person would have to read the sign to determine the law’s content-neutrality. Austin claims that Court cases instead turn on whether speech regulations “single out topics or subjects for distinct regulations” and thus “favor or disfavor particular topics or viewpoints.” The City says that the Fifth Circuit’s rule, which “would subject virtually all distinctions in sign regulation to strict scrutiny,” would perversely lead to less speech, because government officials, to avoid this, “may regulate with a far broader brush, thus suppressing more speech.” Alternatively, the City claims, courts would dilute strict scrutiny in order to uphold sensible laws (“like house-number identifications or event-related sign regulation”), thus undermining the law and creating further uncertainty.
Finally, Austin argues that its sign regulations are subject to intermediate scrutiny, and that they pass. It claims that because its regulations are content neutral, the proper test is intermediate scrutiny, not strict scrutiny. And it says that its regulations are sufficiently tailored to meet its important interests in safety and aesthetics. Alternatively, the City claims that because it validly rejected the plaintiffs’ requests to digitize their signs under the commercial-speech doctrine (which also uses intermediate scrutiny), the plaintiffs can only argue that the regulations are unconstitutionally overbroad (with respect to commercial speech). Austin says that the plaintiffs never raised this argument, and the evidence doesn’t support it.
The government weighs in as amicus to support Austin, emphasizing many of the same points. In particular, the government echoes the City’s arguments that its regulations are content neutral, and that they easily satisfy intermediate scrutiny. The government also claims that any “constitutional infirmities” in the regulations do not justify striking the regulations on their face.
The plaintiffs counter that Austin’s regulations are content based on their face, because they “depend on the communicative content of the signs—specifically whether they advertise activities on the premises . . . .” They point to the language of the regulation defining off-premises signs: those signs that “advertise a business, person, activity, goods, products, or services not located on the site where the sign is installed.” They say that this definition turns on a sign’s content. Moreover, the plaintiffs contend that the regulations’ consideration of the location of the signs (a concededly content-neutral consideration) does not save them; instead, it merely makes the regulations a content-based restriction on speech, not an all-out ban. According to the plaintiffs, the regulations still turn on the content of a sign.
The plaintiffs assert that this interpretation reflects the correct reading of Reed. That case, they say, “made clear that a law may be subject to strict scrutiny either because it draws facial distinctions based on content or because it is motivated by an impermissible content-based purpose.” The plaintiffs contend that Austin’s regulations fall squarely into the first category. They claim that Justice Alito’s examples are not to the contrary: a regulation that defines “off-premises” by its distance from a building, for example, is still content neutral; but a regulation that also depends on a sign’s content (as here) is content based. Contrary to the City, the plaintiffs contend that this is consistent with the Court’s prior opinions, and will not lead to courts striking laws that regulate speech based on its medium. They write, “A regulation is content-based when it depends on the content of the message expressed through a particular medium, not when it regulates the medium itself.”
Having established that strict scrutiny applies, the plaintiffs contend that Austin’s regulations fail. They say that even assuming that Austin’s interests in safety and protecting aesthetics are compelling government interests, the regulations are not narrowly tailored, because Austin “has provided no reason to think that digitizing the limited number of . . . off-premises signs would be more problematic than the unrestricted digitization of on-premises signs, which the [City] currently permits.” In other words, the plaintiffs say that Austin’s interests apply equally to on-premises signs, but Austin does not similarly restrict on-premises signs. The plaintiffs assert, contrary to the City, that this does not mean that all other premises regulations must fail, only that they cannot distinguish based on the content of the sign (as Austin’s do).
The plaintiffs argue next that even if the Court were to apply intermediate scrutiny, Austin’s regulations would fail. They say that the City has better tailored ways to achieve its interests in safety and aesthetics. For example, they contend that the City could simply “limit the frequency of message changes for both on-premises and off-premises signs” in order to meet the City’s concern about “periodically changing” off-premises signs that could threaten safety and aesthetics.
Finally, the plaintiffs argue that the City is wrong to say that their claims fail under the commercial-speech doctrine. The plaintiffs contend that their signs contain both commercial and non-commercial speech, and that the challenged regulations distinguish between off-premises and on-premises signs for both commercial speech and non-commercial speech. Based on these two facts, the plaintiffs assert that the commercial-speech test simply does not apply. In any event, for the same reasons as above, the plaintiffs claim that the regulations fail the commercial-speech test, intermediate scrutiny.
While Reed sought to clarify the approach that courts must use in determining whether a government speech regulation is content based, the case instead generated mass confusion among the lower courts and often led to results that are inconsistent with the Court’s own pre-Reed precedents.
As most relevant here, lower courts have adopted very different approaches to Reed’s first question, whether the government regulation is content based on its face. For example, while the Fifth Circuit has adopted a broad understanding of Reed, reflected in its read-the-sign approach, other circuits have adopted narrower understandings that might tolerate regulations like Austin’s.
The confusion and uncertainty around Reed maybe shouldn’t surprise us. After all, the Reed Court itself seemed a little uncertain about its ruling. That’s why Justice Alito wrote his concurrence, joined by Justices Kennedy and Sotomayor, providing a list of longstanding and traditional content-neutral speech regulations that Reed would not overturn. Among these, Justice Alito explicitly included premises regulations, like Austin’s. The fact that the Fifth Circuit expressly distinguished Austin’s actual premises regulations from Justice Alito’s idealized premises regulations only further illustrates the confusion over Reed’s first question.
This case will (hopefully) provide some clarity and guidance. Still, this is no easy feat. The Court can readily see how a fixed, determinate rule, like the Fifth Circuit’s read-the-sign rule, may give courts clear guidance, but could also apply in an overly rigid way to strike speech regulations that don’t really have anything to do with the content of the speech. At the same time, the Court also understands that a more flexible rule—for example, one that looks to the purpose behind a government speech regulation—may more accurately reveal a government’s intent to discriminate by content, but is also much harder to measure with certainty, and may invite governments to implement content-based regulations under the guise of facial content neutrality.
Some of the amici offer suggestions. For example, the Knight Center and Professor Genevieve Lakier suggest that the Court adopt a more nuanced approach, in the form of a multi-factor test. Under this approach, courts would determine whether a regulation is content based by looking at the two questions in Reed, along with several other considerations that can help reveal when a government regulation actually discriminates by content. Look for the Court to road test these ideas, and others, at oral argument, as it seeks to clarify Reed and bring determinacy to the doctrine.
Tuesday, November 2, 2021
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments this morning in Houston Community College System v. Wilson, the case testing whether an elected body violates the First Amendment when it censures one of its members for the member's critical and disruptive public speech. Here's my Preview, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court cases, with permission:
Case at a Glance
In 2013, David Wilson was elected as a trustee on the Houston Community College System (HCC) Board, the governing body for the HCC. During his tenure, Wilson engaged in a variety of public activities that were highly critical of the Board and his fellow trustees. The Board adopted a resolution that censured Wilson and limited certain privileges that he enjoyed as a member. Wilson sued, arguing that his censure violated free speech.
Elected legislative bodies in the United States have long exercised the power to censure members for their inappropriate or disruptive behavior or speech. As a general matter, bare censure does not violate free speech, because it does not chill or restrict the censured member’s speech. But Wilson contends that the Board impermissibly censured him for speech “outside the legislative sphere,” and that his censure impermissibly included punishment, because it limited certain privileges that he enjoyed as a member.
Can an elected legislative body, consistent with the First Amendment, censure a member for speech outside the legislative sphere and with restrictions on legislative privileges?
In 2013, David Wilson was elected as a trustee on the Houston Community College System (HCC) Board, the governing body for the HCC. Wilson served as one of nine trustees on the Board, each of whom represented a single-member district for a six-year term and served without compensation.
During his tenure, Wilson engaged in a variety of public activities that were highly critical of the Board and his fellow trustees. For example, he arranged robocalls and spoke out on a local radio station in opposition to the Board’s decision to fund a campus in Qatar. He sued HCC in state court after the Board allowed a member to vote on a measure by videoconference. He separately sued HCC and the trustees in state court after the Board allegedly excluded him from an executive session. (In all, Wilson filed four lawsuits against HCC, costing HCC nearly $300,000 in legal fees.) And he hired a private investigator to confirm that one of the trustees actually resided in the district she represented, and to investigate HCC itself. He published his various grievances on a website, where he referred to his fellow trustees and HCC by name.
On January 18, 2018, the Board adopted a resolution censuring Wilson for his behavior. The resolution said that Wilson acted in a manner “not consistent with the best interests of the College or the Board, and in violation of the Board Bylaws Code of Conduct.” The resolution noted that the censure was the “highest level of sanction available” again Wilson.
The resolution instructed Wilson to “immediately cease and desist from all inappropriate conduct.” It further provided that Wilson was “ineligible for election to Board officer positions for the 2018 calendar year,” that he was “ineligible for reimbursement for any College-related travel” for the 2017-2018 fiscal year, and that he would have to seek Board approval to gain access to any funds in his Board “community affairs” account. It warned that “any repeat of improper behavior by Mr. Wilson will constitute grounds for further disciplinary action by the Board.”
Wilson then amended his first state-court complaint to include claims against HCC and the trustees for violating his free-speech rights under the First Amendment. He sought $10,000 in damages for mental anguish, $10,000 in punitive damages, and attorney’s fees. HCC and the trustees removed the case to federal court, on the ground that the case now involved a federal question.
The district court ruled that Wilson could not demonstrate an actual injury, and dismissed the case for lack of standing. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings. The court wrote, based on circuit precedent, that “a reprimand against an elected official for speech addressing a matter of public concern is an actionable First Amendment claim . . . .” Wilson v. Houston Community College System, 955 F.3d 490 (5th Cir. 2020).
In the meantime, Wilson resigned his seat for HCC’s District 2, and ran as a candidate for HCC’s District 1. He lost in a run-off election.
This appeal followed.
As a general matter, the First Amendment protects speech against government action that restricts, punishes, or chills speech. But in general, it does not protect action that merely responds to speech with, well, more speech.
Applying those general principles, some courts have held that an elected body’s mere reprimand of a member, or other members’ mere reprimand of a member, without more, does not violate the First Amendment. That’s because the legislative body or its members simply responded to another member’s speech with more speech of its own (the reprimand). The Fifth Circuit, in contrast, held that the Board’s mere reprimand of Wilson through censure may violate the First Amendment. (Remember, the Fifth Circuit did not rule on the merits; it only remanded the case for further proceedings on Wilson’s First Amendment claim.)
The parties therefore dispute whether the Board’s censure of Wilson (with or without the censure’s restrictions on his privileges as a member) was punitive. If it was, then the First Amendment applies; if not, it doesn’t.
But Wilson adds a twist. Distinguishing the circuit courts that have held that mere reprimand through censure, without more, does not violate the First Amendment, Wilson adds that an elected body may merely censure a member for speech “within the legislative sphere,” that is, while conducting legislative business, but not for speech outside that sphere.
Against this backdrop, HCC argues first that the Board’s censure resolution amounted to permissible “peer criticism” that “may be voiced by other members individually or by a majority speaking for the body as a whole.” Either way, HCC contends that its resolution did not suppress or chill Wilson’s speech, “compel him to espouse the majority’s views,” or impede his performance of his job. (HCC’s argument hinges on the theory that the Board’s censure resolution was a mere reprimand, without punishment or sanction.) It therefore did not violate the First Amendment.
HCC argues next that its censure resolution is well supported by historical tradition, going back to the Founding, and even before. It says that the English parliament censured members as early as the sixteenth century for speech outside official parliamentary proceedings, often in ways that included discipline beyond bare censure; that this power migrated to colonial assemblies, and, later, state legislatures and Congress; and that censure in response to members’ speech is widely practiced today among local elected bodies.
HCC argues that recognizing a First Amendment claim in response to a bare censure resolution (as the Fifth Circuit did in this case) “would perversely halt that speech-rich local practice.” According to HCC, that’s because a “legislative censure is important government counter-speech on a matter of public concern.” In other words, censure adds to aggregate valuable speech in a public debate; it doesn’t impede speech. Because “the Constitution safeguards . . . the right of both sides to be heard,” HCC contends that disputes between elected members and a legislative body should be resolved by the voters.
The government weighs in as amicus to elaborate on the history and tradition of censure resolutions; to put a finer point on the argument that an elected body’s censure resolution amounts to government speech; and to emphasize that the Court need not address tougher issues outside the Question Presented (for example, when an elected body disciplines a member for speech beyond bare censure). (The government seems to go farther than HCC, in that it argues that an elected body can even discipline or punish a member, including by censure.)
Wilson counters first by conceding that a legislative body may censure a member’s speech “within the legislative sphere,” that is, on the chamber floor, in legislative hearings, or in legislative reports, for example. But he says that a legislative body may not censure or otherwise punish a member’s speech “outside the legislative sphere.” He claims, contrary to HCC, that mere censure, without more, is punitive, and thus an impermissible response to speech outside the legislative sphere. He claims that historical evidence, modern precedents, and contemporary practice all confirm this. He points to examples from the Founding Era, more recent court rulings (including Supreme Court rulings that have “held in other contexts that formal censures can violate the First Amendment”), and contemporary authorities on parliamentary procedure. He writes that “[m]any such bylaws expressly state that censures may not be entered against members in response to their speech.”
In any event, Wilson argues that the Board’s censure resolution here went farther than mere censure. He points out that it included revoking and limiting certain of his “privileges of office,” including barring his access to reimbursements for college-related travel and restricting his access to community affairs funds. He also points out that the censure expressly “directed” him “to immediately cease and desist” his outside activities against the Board or face “further disciplinary action.” He contends that because his censure was “plainly punitive,” it violated the First Amendment, “[w]hatever one might say about formal censures as a general matter.”
Wilson argues that the censure violates his free-speech rights under Bond v. Floyd. 385 U.S. 116 (1966). The Court in that case held that the Georgia legislature violated the First Amendment when it excluded a member for his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam War. Wilson claims that while his censure falls short of exclusion, his censure nevertheless “included practical disabilities intended to prevent Wilson from performing his official functions”—just like exclusion. “Under Bond, the censure therefore violated the First Amendment.”
Wilson contends that his censure was not protected government speech. He says that in contrast to ordinary government speech (which might include a mere position statement, for example), his censure was punitive. He claims that if censures were government speech, “there would be nothing to stop elective bodies (or any governmental agency) from censuring journalists for critical coverage of the government, including (so it would seem) revoking privileges like press passes in response.”
Wilson argues that his punitive censure cuts against the values of the First Amendment, because it impedes speech (and doesn’t enhance aggregate speech). He claims that Board members had numerous other ways to express their opposition to his speech (and thus add to aggregate speech, consistent with the First Amendment). But he says that his punitive censure only serves to shut down his speech. He asserts that if his censure stands, “elective assemblies [would be empowered] to use their formal censure power to chill dramatically the speech of out-of-favor elected officials.”
Finally, Wilson emphasizes that a ruling in his favor would only disallow “a very narrow range of official censures.” According to Wilson, that’s because censures are “shockingly rare in the United States,” and almost always in response to speech “within the legislative sphere.” He says that a ruling in his favor would only disallow censures outside the legislative sphere, which are already “almost unheard of.”
The Court has never squarely addressed whether an elected body’s censure of a member implicates or violates the First Amendment. Some lower courts have, however, and there’s some tension, or even conflict, in how they have addressed the question. At least three federal circuit courts (the Fourth, Sixth, and Tenth Circuits) and the Vermont State Supreme Court have all ruled that censure does not violate the First Amendment. The Fifth Circuit ruled to the contrary.
In sorting this out, look for the Court to consider several factors. First, the Court will likely consider whether an elected body’s mere reprimand, standing alone, is sufficient punishment to trigger First Amendment scrutiny. Next, if not, the Court will need to consider how much punishment or retaliatory action a censure resolution must include in order to trigger the First Amendment. In particular, the Court will have to consider whether an elected body’s restrictions on a member’s legislative privileges, without more, are sufficient punishment. Third, the Court may consider any differences between an elected body’s formal censure resolution and other members’ less formal reprimands (which are constitutionally protected), and whether those differences are constitutionally significant. Finally, the Court will consider Wilson’s claim that censure is valid for speech “within the legislative sphere,” but not outside it.
The Court’s approach may also depend on how it understands censure. If it understands censure as adding to aggregate speech, as HCC and the government argue, it will more likely allow censure, consistent with its more general trend to promote more speech, not less. If it understands censure as detracting from aggregate speech, however, as Wilson argues, it will more likely scrutinize censure. In a different dimension, if it understands censure as government speech, as HCC and the government argue, it will more likely allow censure, consistent with its more general trend to allow the government to say whatever it likes. If it understands censure as government punishment, however, as Wilson argues, it will more likely scrutinize censure.
Finally, and most importantly, the case could impact the censure practices of local governments across the country. HCC argues in its cert. petition that thousands of local governments authorize censure of members, and that “it is frequently used” for a range of member speech that “is quite broad.”
Saturday, August 21, 2021
The Tenth Circuit ruled that three part of the Kansas Farm Animal and Field Crop and Research Facilities Protection Act violated free speech. The ruling enjoins the government from enforcing those provisions.
The case, Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Kelly, tests three part of the Act, which, as a general matter criminalizes certain actions directed at an animal facility without effective consent of the owner of the facility and with intent to damage the enterprise of the facility. ALDF sued, arguing that the Act violated free speech, because ALDF investigators sometimes lie about their association with ALDF in order to get jobs at the facilities under cover, and would therefore violate the Act.
The Tenth Circuit agreed. The court examined three parts of the Act: subsection (b), which forbids acquiring or exercising control over an animal facility without effective consent of the owner and with intent to damage the enterprise; subsection (c), which forbids recording, attempting to record, or trespassing to record on an animal facility's property without effective consent of the owner and with intent to damage the enterprise; and subsection (d), which forbids trespassing on an animal facility without effective consent of the owner and with intent to damage the enterprise. The court ruled that these were viewpoint-based restrictions on speech (because they each require the "intent to damage the enterprise," as opposed, for example, to laud the enterprise), and subject to strict scrutiny. The court said that Kansas didn't even bother to try to justify the provisions under strict scrutiny, and therefore they failed.
Judge Hartz dissented, arguing, among other things, that property owners have a right to exclude that the majority's approach ignores; "that a fraudulently obtained consent to enter another's property, particular the type of entry desired by Plaintiffs, is not protected by the First Amendment"; and that the court should've excised any offending elements of the Act rather than ruling them unconstitutional.
The Ninth Circuit ruled this week that OAN failed to state a case for defamation against MSNBC host Rachel Maddow for stating that OAN "really literally is paid Russian propaganda." The ruling ends OAN's defamation suit.
The case, Herring Networks, Inc. v. Maddow, arose when Maddow ran a segment on OAN reporter Kristen Rouz, who, according to a story in the Daily Beast, also wrote stories for pay for Sputnik. At one point during the longer segment, Maddow said, "In this case, the most obsequiously pro-Trump right wing news outlet in America really literally is paid Russian propaganda." Herring then sued for defamation, and Maddow moved to strike the complaint under California's anti-SLAPP statute.
The Ninth Circuit ruled for Maddow. The court examined the broad context of the statement, the limited context of the statute, and the ability to determine the truth or falsity of the statement and concluded that it simply wasn't a statement of fact that could support a defamation claim:
In sum, two of the factors outlined in [circuit precedent]--the general context and the specific context of the contested statement--negate the impression that the statement is an assertion of objective fact. While the third factor [the ability to determine the truth or falsity of the statement] tilts in the other direction, we conclude that Maddow's contested statement fits within "the 'rhetorical hyperbole' [that] has traditionally added much to the discourse of our Nation."
The Fifth Circuit earlier this week rejected free-speech and free-association claims of a public employee, who was also a public-union leader, after he was terminated for performance reasons. The court also rejected the plaintiffs' class-of-one equal protection claim.
The case, United Steel v. Anderson, arose when Sergio Castilleja, a community service officer for the Bexar County Community Supervision and Corrections Department, was terminated for violating Department rules and other performance issues, including using Department equipment for union activities. But prior to his termination, Castilleja had been elected president of the Bexar County Probation Officers Association, and, in that role, oversaw a no-confidence petition against the Department chief, Jarvis Anderson. When he was fired, Castilleja's children and various unions sued, arguing that the Department terminated him for his union activities in violation of the First Amendment and that the Department treated him differently than officers in other unions in violation of equal protection.
The Fifth Circuit rejected the claims. The court ruled that the Department provided a legitimate, non-speech and non-association reason for his termination--his performance deficiencies--and that the plaintiffs failed to show that this reason was a pretext for reprisal for protected speech and association. The court also ruled that the unions' equal protection argument failed, because under Engquist v. Oregon Department of Agriculture class-of-one equal protection claims (where one person alleges unequal treatment as compared to similarly situated persons) don't apply to discretionary public-employment decisions.