Tag: First Amendment

Did the New York Times Violate the Law by Publishing Trump’s Tax Return, or Is the Law Unconstitutional?

After the New York Times published the 1995 tax returns of Donald Trump, Callum Borchers at the Washington Post and others have said it might be illegal. Trump’s lawyer claimed that publishing the returns was illegal without Trump’s consent, and, being Trump’s lawyer, he of course threatened “prompt initiation of appropriate legal action.”
Adding to the confusion, during a panel discussion at Harvard Law School in mid-September, Bob Woodward, associate editor of the Washington Post, and Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times, presciently discussed whether they would publish Trump’s tax returns if they got ahold of them. “You know what your lawyers would tell you,” Woodward said, ”if you publish them, you go to jail.” Baquet said he would “seriously fight to publish [Trump’s] tax returns.”
For federal tax returns, there is a specific statute that prohibits publishing without consent (26 U.S.C. § 7213(a)(3)). But the Times only published the first page of Trump’s New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut tax returns (not the federal tax returns) so that statute would not apply. 
Of those states, only New York has a privacy statute that could be construed to apply to non-government employees/contractors like the Times. Not to make your brain atrophy from an overdose of legalese, but the New York statute prohibits
any person who, pursuant to this section, is permitted to inspect any report or return or to whom a copy, an abstract or a portion of any report or return is furnished, or to whom any information contained in any report or return is furnished, to divulge or make known in any manner the amount of income or any particulars set forth or disclosed in any report or return required under this article.
This bit of printed chloroform is a convoluted statute (welcome the study of law), but the fairest reading is that the phrase “pursuant to this section”—i.e., the entire section describing the “general powers of the tax commission”—applies only to those who are “permitted to inspect any report or return” under New York law, such as some government contractors. The other entities listed, such as those “to whom a copy, an abstract or a portion of any return is furnished,” can be anyone, even those who obtained a return not “pursuant to this section.” That includes the Times.
So, let’s assume that what the New York Times did was against the law. A more interesting question is: would that law be constitutional under the First Amendment? After all, prohibiting someone from divulging information to the public is clearly an abridgement of speech, so would the law fall under an exception to the general rule that the government cannot prohibit speech?
The most relevant case would be Bartnicki v. Vopper from 2001. That case dealt with a radio commentator who broadcast a tape of an illegally recorded conversation between a chief union negotiator and a union president. The federal statute at issue prohibited people from “willfully disclosing the contents” of any communication that the person knew or had reason to know “was obtained through an illegal interception.” The Court struck the statute down as unconstitutional because it “implicates the core purposes of the First Amendment” by imposing “sanctions on the publication of truthful information of public concern.” Publishing crucial and truthful information about a presidential candidate a month before the election certainly implicates matters of “public concern.”
Finally, because the New York law makes it illegal to merely “divulge or make known” tax return information,  it is broader than laws that prohibit someone from releasing a tax return that he knows (or has reason to know) was obtained illegally. In other words, it prohibits even more speech than the law in Bartnicki. Therefore, it seems likely that the law would be struck down as unconstitutional. 

One Threat To Freedom Of Opinion Down, In California. Many More To Go.

At Overlawyered, I’ve repeatedly covered California Attorney General Kamala Harris’s audacious demand for the donor lists of nonprofits that carry on activities in California, a step likely to lead to both private and public retaliation against individuals and groups revealed to have donated to unpopular or controversial causes. So this is good news: a federal district judge in California has ruled that her crusade violates the Constitutional rights of one such group, Americans for Prosperity Foundation.

As the WSJ notes in an editorial, U.S. District Judge Manuel Real “declared her disclosure requirement an unconstitutional burden on First Amendment rights,” finding that there was scant evidence the disclosures were necessary to prevent charitable fraud, and that, contrary to assurances, her office had “systematically failed to maintain the confidentiality” of nonprofits’ donor lists, some 1,400 of which Harris’s office had in fact published online. As for retaliation against donors, “although the Attorney General correctly points out that such abuses are not as violent or pervasive as those encountered in NAACP v. Alabama or other cases from [the civil rights] era,” he wrote, “this Court is not prepared to wait until an AFP opponent carries out one of the numerous death threats made against its members.”

Our Friends at CEI Face a Subpoena Over Climate Dissent

The campaign to attach legal consequences to supposed “climate denial” has now crossed a fateful line. Yesterday:

The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) today denounced a subpoena from Attorney General Claude E. Walker of the U.S. Virgin Islands that attempts to unearth a decade of the organization’s materials and work on climate change policy. This is the latest effort in an intimidation campaign to criminalize speech and research on the climate debate, led by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and former Vice President Al Gore….

The subpoena requests a decade’s worth of communications, emails, statements, drafts, and other documents regarding CEI’s work on climate change and energy policy, including private donor information. It demands that CEI produce these materials from 20 years ago, from 1997-2007, by April 30, 2016.

CEI General Counsel Sam Kazman said the group “will vigorously fight to quash this subpoena. It is an affront to our First Amendment rights of free speech and association.” More coverage of the subpoena at the Washington Times and Daily Caller.

A few observations:

  • If the forces behind this show-us-your-papers subpoena succeed in punishing (or simply inflicting prolonged legal harassment on) a group conducting supposedly wrongful advocacy, there’s every reason to think they will come after other advocacy groups later. That includes yours.
  • This article in the Observer details the current push to expand the probe of climate advocacy, which first enlisted New York AG Eric Schneiderman and then California’s Kamala Harris — into a broader coalition of AGs, with Massachusetts and the Virgin Islands just having signed on. More than a dozen others, such as Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, seem to be signaling support but have not formally jumped in. More: Peggy Little, Federalist Society.
  • CEI people, many of whom we count as longtime friends and allies in the pro-liberty policy community, have been active critics of the Schneiderman effort, with Hans Bader, a senior attorney there, highly critical just a week ago.
  • In these working groups of attorneys general, legal efforts are commonly parceled out among the states in a deliberate and strategic way, with particular tasks being assigned to AGs who have comparative advantage in some respect (such as an unusually favorable state law to work with, or superior staff expertise or media access). Why would one of the most politically sensitive tasks of all — opening up a legal attack against CEI, a long-established nonprofit well known in Washington and in libertarian and conservative ideological circles — be assigned to the AG from a tiny and remote jurisdiction? Is it that a subpoena coming from the Virgin Islands is logistically inconvenient to fight in some way, or that local counsel capable of standing up to this AG are scarce on the ground there, or that a politician in the Caribbean is less exposed to political backlash from CEI’s friends and fans than one in a major media center? Or what?
  • I recommend checking out the new Free Speech and Science Project, which intends to fight back against criminalization of advocacy by, among other things, organizing legal defense and seeking to hold officials accountable for misusing the law to attack advocacy.
  • This is happening at a time of multiple, vigorous, sustained legal attacks on what had been accepted freedoms of advocacy and association. As I noted yesterday in a piece in this space, Sen. Elizabeth Warren has just demanded that the Securities and Exchange Commission investigate several large corporations that have criticized her pet plan to impose fiduciary legal duties on retirement advisors, supposedly on the ground that it is a securities law violation for them to be conveying to investors a less alarmed view of the regulations’ effect than they do in making their case to the Labor Department. This is not particularly compelling as securities law, but it’s great as a way to chill speech by publicly held businesses.

[cross-posted, with slight changes, from Overlawyered]

Public-Sector Unions Survive to Fight Another Day

This morning, the Supreme Court disappointingly, but expectedly, split 4-4 in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. With Justice Antonin Scalia’s untimely death, one of the likely blockbusters of the term turned into a terse, one-sentence opinion: “The judgment is affirmed by an equally divided Court.”

“The judgment” was the Ninth Circuit’s decision, which sided with the unions on the question of whether forced union dues for public-sector workers violate the First Amendment. At stake in Friedrichs was whether public-sector unions would continue to be permitted, under a 1977 case called Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, to take forced dues from non-members in order to fund the day-to-day activities of the union. In an alternate universe, one in which Scalia is still alive and sitting on the Court, Friedrichs would have almost assuredly overruled or severely limited Abood, essentially converting public-sector unions into “right to work” unions.  

The lack of a blockbuster decision in Friedrichs is one of the most significant immediate consequences of Scalia’s death. Few issues split the Court more starkly than unions, and there were clearly irreconcilable differences among the justices. Friedrichs was only argued on January 11, so the justices didn’t take too long to conclude that there was no way to decide the case with five justices in the majority, thus the thoroughly unsatisfying opinion today.

Rights in the Balance

The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.

The saying, it turns out, has some of its pedigree in Prohibition, during which the right to serve drinks was said to interfere with the rights of the family. But misapplication to “group rights” aside, it’s a phrase that captures our system of rights well. You are (or should be) free to do whatever you wish, so long as you don’t injure others in their rights.

You can see society hammering out the dividing line between rights in a case that produced a jury verdict last Friday: Hulk Hogan vs. Gawker. The provocative website published a mid-2000 video of the former wrestler and TV personality having sex with a friend’s wife. Hogan sued and won a verdict of $115 million, which Gawker will appeal.

The argument on Hulk’s side is that public exposure of a person’s intimate moments and bodily functions violates a right to privacy. The free speech argument is that a person has a right to broadcast and discuss anything he or she pleases.

These are both important rights. The privacy right is a little younger, having developed since about 1890. The free speech right pre-existed its 1791 acknowledgement in the Bill of Rights, so speech has a stronger heritage. But the dividing line will never be decided once and for all. Common practices and common mores will set and reset the line between these rights through accretion and erosion, the way a winding river divides a plain. That way of producing rules is very special: common law courts deciding in real cases what serves justice best.

Government Can’t Censor Digital Expression Just Because Someone Somewhere Might Use It for Unlawful Purposes

It’s alas old news when the government couples an imposition on liberty with an exercise in futility—security theater, anyone?—but it’s still finding inventive ways to do so in a nifty case that combines the First Amendment, the Second Amendment, and 3D printing.

Defense Distributed, a nonprofit organization that promotes popular access to constitutionally protected firearms, generates and disseminates information over the Internet for a variety of scientific, artistic, and political reasons. The State Department has ordered the company to stop online publication of certain CAD (Computer-Aided Drafting) files—complex three-dimensional printing specifications with no intellectual-property protection—even domestically. These files can be used to 3D-print the Liberator, a single-shot handgun. The government believes that the files that could be used to print the Liberator are subject to the International Trafficking in Arms Regulations, because they could be downloaded by foreigners and thus are “exports” of arms information that could cause unlawful acts.

You Ought to Have a Look: Intimidation in Science

You Ought to Have a Look is a feature from the Center for the Study of Science posted by Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. (“Chip”) Knappenberger. While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic. Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.

Talk of interference, intimidation, and abridgement of scientific freedom continues to make the news this week—and increasingly is taking the form of pushback against recently announced congressional investigations into sources of scientific research funding.

On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial offering a “round of applause for those pushing back, providing the bullies a public lesson in the First Amendment.” Highlighted in their coverage were efforts by the Cato Institute, Heartland Institute and Koch Industries condemning attempts to “silence public debate” on climate change. From the WSJ:

Democrats and their allies have failed to persuade Americans that climate change is so serious that it warrants sweeping new political controls on American energy and industry. So liberals are trying to silence those who are winning the argument. We’re glad to see the dissenters aren’t intimidated.

Also unintimidated by attempts abridge academic freedom is Alice Dreger, professor of Medical Education-Medical Humanities and Bioethics at Northwestern University and a historian of science and medicine. Dreger has a new book out titled Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists and the Search for Justice in Science that describes how activists try to intimidate researchers when the activists disagree with the researchers’ work.

Roger Pielke Jr. reviews the book for Nature. From his blog, leading into his review, Roger describes why he empathizes with Dreger: