ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Jeremy Telman
Oklahoma City University
School of Law

Monday, June 27, 2022

At It Again: The First Amendment and Contracts

How RightsThis week, I am putting the finishing touches on a law review article that grew out of this blog post.  The article is the first in a planned series of articles in which I attempt to channel  Jamal Greene's How Rights Went Wrong and argue that First Amendment rights are not absolute and that contractual rights and interests should also play a role in adjudication of constitutional disputes.  I think our current First Amendment jurisprudence provides too much protection for dumb speech and thus renders insipid the values that the Constitution is supposed to protect.  In short, I'm a jerk who doesn't support free speech.

But not really.  I favor full-throated protection of political speech, and the Eighth Circuit has provided me a chance to prove it!  The case is Arkansas Times, LP v. WaldripThe Court, sitting en banc, upheld Arkansas Act 710 (Act 710), which requires that contractors seeking to work with the state provide a certification that they will not participate in a boycott of Israel.  All parties seeking contracts with the state in excess of $1000 must provide a certification. If contractors refuse to file a certification, they can only be awarded a contract if their bid is 20% lower than the lowest certifying business.  The Arkansas Times challenged the certification on First Amendment grounds, and I would have sided with the Arkansas Times, as did lone dissenter, Judge Jane Kelly.  

In N.A.A.C.P. v. Claiborne Hardware Co., 458 U.S. 886 (1982), the Supreme Court found that the state violated the First Amendment when it prohibited peaceful political activity, such as that involved in the NAACP's boycott of businesses owned by whites.  The Arkansas Times argued that Claiborne governed its case. 

Arkansas instead relied on Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic & Institutional Rights, Inc. (FAIR), 547 U.S. 47 (2006), in which the Court held that First Amendment protection does not extend to non-expressive conduct.  In FAIR, law schools denied military recruiters access to their campuses to protest the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.  Congress responded with the Solomon Act, denying federal funds to schools that closed their campuses to military recruiters.  In a baffling bit a sophistry, the unanimous court found that the First Amendment was not implicated in the law schools' challenge to the Solomon Amendment because the law schools' message was too unclear.  Conduct that needs to be explained to a neutral observer in order for its political content to be understood gets no First Amendment protection.  

Guess what!  The Eight Circuit, sitting en banc, found that contractors that refuse to sign Act 710 certifications engaged in non-expressive conduct.  The boycotts at issue in Act 710 are nothing like the boycotts at issue in Claiborne! It somehow reaches that conclusion not by looking into the possible messages business send by joining in boycotts of Israel but at the language and legislative history of Act 710.

Under Arkansas’s canons of statutory interpretation, we think the Arkansas Supreme Court would read Act 710 as prohibiting purely commercial, nonexpressive conduct. It does not ban Arkansas Times from publicly criticizing Israel, or even protesting the statute itself. It only prohibits economic decisions that discriminate against Israel. Because those commercial decisions are invisible to observers unless explained, they are not inherently expressive and do not implicate the First Amendment.

Draft_card_burning_NYC_1967This makes sense only in a world in which one could look at Mr. Cohen's "Fuck the Draft" jacket or at other protestors from that era burning their draft cards (or bras) and think, "How odd!  I wonder what these gestures are supposed to convey!  Oh well, unless they explain them to me, I guess I'll never know."  And really, what boycott sends a clear message?  When I see a protest, the first thing I do is walk up to someone with a sign (the slogans are often opaque) and ask, "What's going on here?  Why are you protesting."  The FAIR test is not just unfair.  It's absurd.

In any case, Judge Kelly's dissent makes mincemeat of the majority's selective account of the legislative intent, which was clearly directed at expressive conduct. "[T]he Act implicates the First Amendment rights of speech, assembly, association, and petition recognized to be constitutionally protected boycott activity."

But wait, what of the compelled speech that the certification entails?  Well, that's just incidental to the permissible regulation of non-expressive conduct.  Nobody is holding a gun to the would-be contractors' heads.  They don't have to sign anything.  It's just that if they don't certify their love for Israel, they can't compete for a state contract.  Even I, who thinks our First Amendment jurisprudence is dumb, can see that Arkansas main goal is not commercial regulation but to use its economic power (the power of contracts!) to chill free expression.

An aside.  Act 710, like its counterparts in other states, defines “boycott of Israel” to include any actions "intended to limit commercial relations with Israel, or persons or entities doing business in Israel or in Israeli-controlled territories . . . ” (emphasis added).  The "Israeli-controlled territories" are not Israel.  If they were, then there would be 5.3 million Palestinians entitled to Israeli citizenship.  That ain't happening.  The "Israeli-controlled territories" are occupied territories.  Boycotting the occupation is not a boycott of Israel.  These state acts punish entities not for boycotting Israel but for boycotting the occupation.  There's a huge difference.  Ask Ben & Jerry's, which is subject to divestment actions by Arkansas and other states for its refusal to sell its products in the occupied territories.  But Ben & Jerry's has remained committed to selling its products in Israel.  

The inclusion of the language about the "Israeli-controlled territories" is, in my view, conclusive proof that Act 710 is not an economic measure.  It is a political measure and compelled compliance with the state's political stance on the Israeli occupation violates the First Amendment.  Even if I did not think Act 710 violated the First Amendment, I would still find it preposterous that any U.S. state would blur the lines between support for Israel and support of the occupation.

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