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.
Friday, August 20, 2021
The Fifth Circuit ruled that a $5 per person fee for "latex clubs" in Texas violated free speech and due process. The ruling means that state authorities can't enforce the fee against sexually oriented clubs where dancers wear opaque latex breast coverings and shorts.
The case, Texas Entertainment Association v. Hegar, arose when Texas enacted a "sexually oriented business" fee that imposed a $5 charge per customer on businesses that serve alcohol in the presence of nude entertainment. In response, some sexually oriented businesses required dancers to wear opaque latex breast coverings and shorts. The gambit allowed these "latex clubs" to dodge the $5 fee for a good eight years, until the Texas comptroller issued a rule that excluded latex from the definition of "clothing" under the law. The rule meant that latex clubs now had to pay the fee.
The TEA, which represents sexually oriented businesses in Texas, sued, arguing that the comptroller's move violated free speech, due process, and equal protection. The Fifth Circuit agreed, except as to equal protection.
The court ruled that the comptroller's redefinition was a content-based restriction on speech (and not content-neutral), because the comptroller produced no evidence that the redefinition served any non-speech purpose (like reducing the secondary effects of latex clubs). (The court declined to shoehorn the state's initial asserted interest behind the $5 fee--reducing secondary effects--into the comptroller's decision, more than eight years later, and based on no evidence.) The court applied strict scrutiny, and ruled that the comptroller's action failed.
The court also ruled that the comptroller's action violated due process. The court said that the comptroller previously declined to impose the fee on latex clubs--indeed, that the comptroller told one club that "everything was good"--and upset the latex clubs' "settled expectation that they would not be subject to" the fee.
Finally, the court ruled that the action didn't violate equal protection. The court said that latex clubs were more like nude dancing establishments (which were already subject to the fee), and not like sports bars (which were not). Because the move did not treat similarly situated businesses differently (latex clubs aren't similar to sports bars), the court ruled that it didn't violate equal protection.
Thursday, August 19, 2021
The Sixth Circuit ruled that the University of Louisville did not violate procedural due process or free speech when it disciplined and later terminated a tenured professor and department chair for signing an unauthorized lease on behalf of the department and meeting with private equity firms interested in buying or financing the department.
Dr. Henry J. Kaplan, tenured prof and Chair of UofL's Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences, sued the school after it fired him for signing the lease and meeting with potential investors. Kaplan argued that his termination violated due process, his reputation and career interests, and academic freedom. The court rejected each claim.
As to due process, the court ruled that Kaplan didn't have a property interest in his administrative position (chair of the department), so due process didn't apply. It ruled that the school's process for terminating his tenured professorship satisfied due process, because the school notified Kaplan of the issues prior to any disciplinary action; it terminated him pursuant to school rules that allow the school to terminate a faculty member for "[n]eglect of or refusal to perform one's duty" that "substantially impairs [their] effectiveness as a faculty member"; it conducted a post-termination hearing (a "Cadillac plan of due process"); and an alternative pre-deprivation hearing wouldn't have been any more protective of Kaplan's property right in his faculty position.
The court held that Kaplan forfeited any reputational-interest claim because he didn't request a name-clearing hearing. It ruled that the school didn't violate his career interest, because it didn't prevent Kaplan from seeking future employment in his chosen career.
Finally, the court ruled that Kaplan misfired on his academic freedom claim. "Simply put, UofL suspended Kaplan because of his attempts to circumvent UofL's cost-control measures and not because of any ideas he advocated or research he conducted."
Saturday, August 14, 2021
Judge Paul Friedman (D.D.C.) ruled yesterday that a media organization had a First Amendment right to some of the videos that the Justice Department submitted in support of detaining a January 6 insurrectionist, but not others.
The case, In re: Application for Access to Video Exhibits, involves 11 videos that DOJ submitted in support of detaining a defendant who is charged in connection with the insurrection. Eight of these are not sealed; three are sealed.
The court ruled that the media organization had a First Amendment right to all eight unsealed videos, and to one of the sealed videos, because it had already been released.
As to the two other sealed videos, the court ruled that DOJ overcame "the presumption in favor of public access," because DOJ demonstrated a compelling interest that could be harmed if they were released (security at the Capitol, because the footage could "result in the layout, vulnerabilities, and security weaknesses of the U.S. Capitol being collected, exposed, and passed on to those who might wish to attack the Capitol again"), and because there's no alternative to non-disclosure of the videos that would protect this interest.
The court also ruled that the organization didn't have a right to these videos under the common law.
Friday, August 13, 2021
Judge Carl Nichols (D.D.C.) this week denied the Washington Post's motion to dismiss a defamation lawsuit by House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Ranking Member Devin Nunes. The ruling means that this portion of Nunes's case can move forward.
The case, Nunes v. WP Company, arose out of Washington Post reporting on Nunes's activities related to former President Trump's claims that President Obama ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower during the 2020 presidential campaign. The Post reported that Nunes "was given access at the White House to intelligence files that Nunes believed would buttress his baseless claims of the Obama administration spying on Trump Tower," and that Nunes saw the documents "reportedly late at night, earning the episode the nickname 'the midnight run.'"
But Nunes said around the time that there was no evidence of wiretaps of Trump Tower, even as he also expressed "concern that other surveillance activities were used against President Trump and his associates," and thought it was "very possible" that Trump and others might have been caught up in surveillance directed at others.
Nunes complained to the Post and, that same day, sued. The Post then printed revisions, saying that the timing of Nunes's visit to the White House was "unclear," and that Nunes himself never said that Trump Tower was wiretapped (instead, Trump did). But the revisions didn't take back the "baseless claims" language. Nunes amended his complaint to incorporate the revisions.
The Post moved to dismiss the complaint on the ground that its article was neither false nor defamatory, and that Nunes failed to sufficiently allege that the Post published the article with actual malice, among other reasons.
The court denied the motion. The court wrote that even the Post's revision said that Nunes made "baseless" claims, when he didn't: He only claimed that intelligence activities touched on the Trump campaign (of which there was evidence by November 2020, so this wasn't "baseless"), not that Trump Tower was wiretapped (which wasn't true, but Nunes didn't say it). Moreover, the court said that the Post's false claim could also be defamatory:
Taken as a whole, the article says (or at least a reasonable juror could understand the article to say) that Nunes had made baseless claims about spying on Trump Tower and then visited the White House to inspect documents that might support those baseless claims. And a reasonable juror could conclude that an elected official is ridiculous or unfit for office if he searched for evidence to support baseless claims.
The court ruled that Nunes sufficiently alleged actual malice, or reckless disregard of the truth, because the Post itself had previously reported that Nunes denied Trump's claims about a wiretap at Trump Tower.
The court noted, however, that Nunes now has "to establish by clear and convincing evidence that, even in light of the corrections the Post did issue, it published statements with actual malice."
Thursday, August 12, 2021
Judge Carl Nichols (D.D.C.) denied the motions of Sidney Powell, Rudolph Guiliani, and Mike Lindell and My Pillow to dismiss Dominion Voting Systems's lawsuits against them for defamation. The ruling is only preliminary; it only means that Dominion sufficiently pleaded defamation to withstand the defendants' motions to dismiss, not that Dominion prevails on the merits. Still, it doesn't bode well for the defendants.
The case grew out of the defendants' many, er, inventive and unsubstantiated claims about Dominion Voting Systems's role in the 2020 presidential election. In particular, all three made public claims--again, many of them, and utterly unsubstantiated--to the effect that Dominion threw the election to President Biden.
Dominion sued, arguing that the defendants defamed the corporation, among other things. The defendants separately filed motions to dismiss, arguing that Dominion's defamation claims failed on their face, also among other things. The cases were designated as "related," and, in a consolidated ruling, the court flatly rejected the defendants' claims.
In particular, the court rejected Powell's argument that her statements couldn't have been defamatory, because they were either "opinions" or "legal theories." The court parsed just a handful of her statements and easily concluded that they were neither opinion nor legal theories.
The court also rejected Powell's and My Pillow's arguments that Dominion failed to allege "actual malice." Again, the court parsed just a few of their outlandish statements (along with the fabricated evidence, and lack of evidence, to support them) and easily concluded that Dominion met this standard in its complaint.
The court rejected Guiliani's arguments in support of his motion to dismiss on different grounds. (Guiliani didn't argue that Dominion failed to sufficiently allege its defamation claim against him.)
Monday, April 26, 2021
The Eleventh Circuit ruled last week that a witness to a highway accident didn't have a clearly established right to photograph police activity on the median. The court granted an officer qualified immunity against the witness's First Amendment claim and dismissed the case.
The case, Crocker v. Beatty, arose when James Crocker stopped to take pictures of an accident on the median of I-95 in Florida. Martin County Deputy Sheriff Steven Beatty confiscated Crocker's phone and placed him in a patrol vehicle. Crocker sued, alleging a violation of his First Amendment right to free speech, among other things.
The Eleventh Circuit ruled that Beatty enjoyed qualified immunity, because Crocker had no clearly established right to photograph police activity on a highway median. The court said that circuit precedent, Smith v. City of Cumming, established only that "[t]he First Amendment protects the right to gather information about what public officials do on public property, and specifically, a right to record matters of public interest." The court said that this was too vague a statement to create a clearly established right to photograph police "on the median of a major highway at the rapidly evolving scene of a fatal crash," in "the chaos of a fatal car crash," by "a citizen who (as we will explain shortly) might well have been photographing the incident from an unlawful vantage point" (although Beatty specifically told Crocker that he wasn't violating the law).
Judge Martin dissented, arguing that Smith clearly established the right.
Wednesday, April 21, 2021
The First Circuit ruled last week that a Massachusetts police department did not violate an officer's free-speech rights by taking disciplinary action against the officer after the officer first reported another officer's misconduct, and later made threats and false claims to his superior and an independent investigator. The court ruled that the department would've taken the same disciplinary action regardless of the officer's protected speech.
The case, Gutwill v. City of Framingham, started when officer Matthew Gutwill filed a complaint against another officer that the other officer gave false testimony at a suppression hearing. The department concluded that Gutwill had "good cause" to make the complaint, but that the allegations were unsubstantiated.
The department later rotated Gutwill out of his DEA taskforce position and made other changes that affected his overtime and privileges. Gutwill complained about those changes to senior officers, including a call to the department chief, where Gutwill made threatening comments, told the chief that federal agents had recorded the deputy chief on a wiretap as part of a drug investigation, and told the chief that he (Gutwill) had reported his concerns to the FBI.
The chief reported the call, and the department appointed an independent investigator. The investigator initially concluded that Gutwill had not been truthful in denying his threats to the chief. The department placed Gutwill on administrative leave pending the completion of the investigation. The investigator later concluded that Gutwill lied to her (the investigator), too, about his (Gutwill's) statements about the deputy chief. In response, the department suspended Gutwill for five days without pay for dishonesty and conduct unbecoming an officer. An independent hearing officer concluded that Gutwill violated department regulations on honesty and conduct.
Gutwill sued. The district court ruled against him, and the First Circuit affirmed. The court held that the department demonstrated that it would've taken the same disciplinary actions whether or not Gutwill engaged in protected speech. The court said that the chief had good cause to report the call with Gutwill, and that the hearing officer's conclusion that Gutwill violated department rules was "an adequate, non-retaliatory basis for Gutwill's discipline." It also noted that the investigator's conclusion that Gutwill was dishonest with her provided yet another independent reason for Gutwill's discipline.
Monday, April 12, 2021
The Seventh Circuit ruled on Friday that a state governor can limit media access to press conferences, so long as the limits are reasonable and viewpoint neutral. The ruling rebuffs the plaintiffs' challenges and allows the governor to continue to limited access to press conferences based on viewpoint neutral criteria.
The case, MacIver Institute for Public Policy v. Evers, arose when Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers prevented two reporters from the MacIver Institute from attending his limited-access press conferences. Evers restricted access based on a set of criteria that included things like the length of time that a media outlet has published news, whether a media outlet is a periodical or has an established television or radio presence, whether the reporters are paid or full-time correspondents, and whether the reporters and media outlet are "bona fide" and "of repute in their profession," among other similar criteria. The Institute sued, arguing that free speech and free press guaranteed a right to equal access for all media.
The court rejected the Institute's challenge. It ruled that the governor's limited-access press conferences were "nonpublic" forums, and that the governor permissibly limited access based on criteria that had nothing to do with a media outlet's viewpoint. Moreover, the court noted that the Institute provided no evidence that Evers applied the viewpoint neutral criteria in a viewpoint-based way. The court noted that under the governor's viewpoint-neutral criteria, the governor allowed access to a variety of media across the range of political ideologies, and that the governor similarly disallowed access to a variety of media across the range of political ideologies.
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.